Category Archives: Donald Westlake novels

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4

McGinnis-art-3

hong-kong-day-panorama

Bennett went over to stand beside Curtis and study the plans. God, it was good to be back in construction again! To be standing in a site office, shoulder to shoulder with the boss, looking over the plans. This, Bennett thought, is where I’ve been supposed to be, lo, these many years.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Looking at the plans, Curtis said, “We don’t have as much time as I’d hoped, Colin.”

“No, sir.”

“Them being here in Hong Kong, and in one of the tunnels, suggests they know far too much.”

“It’s that Mark Hennessy, sir,” Bennett said, meaning, there’s a bad employee, and here, sir, right here at your side, is a good employee.

Curtis said, “I suppose part of it is Mark, but not all of it, he didn’t know that much. I think it’s mostly George Manville, figuring things out. Why I didn’t get rid of him when I had my hands on him I’ll never know.”

“You thought he could still help you, sir.”

“Well, I was wrong about that,” Curtis said. “But it isn’t going to stop us, Colin.”

Us. “No, sir!”

It might be interesting, in fact, to stay here in Hong Kong, particularly if they didn’t after all manage to thwart Curtis. To stay at the Peninsula—switching to a Hong Kong view room, of course—to sit in a comfortable chair by the window, and to watch the towers across the way begin to tremble, to shudder, then to fall to their knees, window panes snapping out into the air like frightened hawks, walls dropping away, floors tilting, desks and filing cabinets and people sliding out into the world, then to feel the power ripple in this direction across the harbor, to see it come like a ghost in the water, to feel it tug at the landfill on this side, the buildings swaying, the yachts and junks and huge cargo ships all foundering and failing and staring with one last despairing gaze at the sky, then the harbor boiling, this very building bending down to kiss the sea…

What a spectacular sight. Who would want to look at anything else after that?

One of the things I’ve had to chronicle, as I’ve worked my way from 1960 to the present day, has been the decreasing diversity and quality of cover art for Mr. Westlake’s various efforts.  (Though Richard Stark, as ever, remains the outlier, and I’ll have the covers to prove it in the coming weeks.)

Hard Case Crime, which published this book, is one component in a much larger media corporation, headquartered in the U.K., so the American and British covers are identical.  If there are different covers for any foreign language editions thus far, they have eluded me.  As of the present time, I don’t believe that’s the case (translations take time).  So was I going to just keep posting the same cover image, four times in a row?

Then it occurred to me–wouldn’t Hard Case Crime have commissioned a few alternate takes, before settling on one? Charles Ardai confirmed they had considered a different cover, and his email came with an attachment.  When making the inquiry, I figured the most I’d get would be a somewhat different preliminary sketch from Paul Mann, who did the cover you’ve already seen, but Ardai said Mann nailed it the first time, so no need for a second.

Instead, I got what you see up top, and that’s from none other than Robert E. McGinnis.  Yowzah.

There could be no more obvious choice to illustrate a Westlake novel based on an idea for a Bond flick that never happened than the man of a thousand (or more) gorgeously lurid paperbacks.  McGinnis also provided iconic poster art for 007 back in the 60’s, and to make it even more perfect, he did some of his best work for the six Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels–including their reprint of The Hunter, (entitled Point Blank, because of the film version just coming out), where Parker looks like Sean Connery, and doesn’t resemble Lee Marvin a whit.

(Also, I’m pretty sure Westlake put a fondly irreverent caricature of McGinnis in Nobody’s Perfect.  And McGinnis seems to have depicted himself as Parker in his cover for The Black Ice Score.)

So this is what McGinnis came up with, when approached.  And it’s breathtaking.  It evokes the villain’s plan memorably, as well as one of the heroes of the piece.  And I can see why they still went with Mann. (McGinnis’s art won’t go to waste; it will be used for some other Hard Case offering, in the next year or two.)

His nifty noirish style has held up beautifully (as two recent art books featuring his work can attest).  His technique (at 91 years of age!) can hardly be improved upon.  And his take on the female protagonist here–well……..

Kim Baldur is not some pale protein-deficient red-headed art model in heels.  Nor would she be wearing a pink bikini, let alone green mascara.  At any time in her life, but least of all when Hong Kong is about to be turned into a malodorous mire.  She’s going to be the one upon whom it falls in the end to prevent this, and she should be dressed for the occasion, no?  And she should probably eat something first.  Though not too soon before she goes in the water.  Like cramps are her primary concern there.

Also, there are no exploding helicopters or hungry sharks in the book, nor does George ever get his hands on an assault rifle, but that’s quibbling.  Mann’s cover has Kim boldly brandishing a sidearm, when the only weapon she ever employs is a can of hairspray, and that’s quibbling too.  One’s license to kill may never come through, no matter how many applications you fill out, but artistic license is a thing.

So how much license do we grant Westlake here?  Obviously this isn’t meant as an exercise in gritty realism.  Nor is it meant to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Somewhere in-between.  Taking the kind of story where the hero is a smug sexy secret agent, and the villain is trying to take over the world from his secret base on an island or inside a volcano or whatever–and recast it.  Re-imagine it.

The heroes (plural) are still attractive enough, but one is a duly diligent engineering wonk, another an earnestly impulsive eco-warrior of a girl, and the third is not merely gay, but German!

The villain is an arrogant billionaire, and that’s nothing new, but he’s wealthy on paper only.  In debt up to his deceptively bland eyeballs, caught in a trap of his own making, and not at all interested in conquering the world.  He merely wants to retain his current standing in that world, maybe improve it a tad.

But to do this, he has to pull off a stupendous (and murderous) caper,  taking most of the gold reserves from the Bank of China, then destroying all evidence of his crime, by obliterating most of the city of Hong Kong.  The same city the People’s Republic unceremoniously evicted him from, not long after they took charge there, so let’s just say that there’s a certain synergistic aspect.  Well, it was the Chinese who said that Crisis = Opportunity, right?

And in the process of dealing with certain complications that sprang up along the way, he’s hired a disgraced ex-employee of his, a hulking man-monster of a Singaporean, to deal with those complications, with extreme prejudice.   He’s got other henchmen as well, but keeps faith only with himself.  He expects none of the others, heroes or henchmen, to make it to the end of the movie.  But he fully expects to be there at the end, the last man standing, and he gets his way. Spoiler alert? If you don’t want to know, better stop reading now.

The final part of this novel is the shortest,  15 chapters.   Westlake has been paring away at the cast to make this possible (some posthumous paring from Ardai as well).

The guilt-ridden Captain Zhang is dead.  The murderous Morgan Pallifer is dead.  The well-meaning but tunnel-visioned Jerry Diedrich is dead.  Colin Bennett’s arc effectively concluded in Part Three, and now he’s just Curtis’s servitor–in his creator’s mind, he might as well be dead.  Inspector Fairchild, though making himself useful here and there, isn’t going to be solving any mysteries, or making any arrests. The once intrepid Mark Hennessy is soon to be reduced to a shadow of his former spying self.  A new POV character is introduced, then even more abruptly taken out of play.

One key figure after another has fallen by the wayside in this story, until there are only–

FOUR:

Martin Ha lived on a comparatively quiet side street in the middle-class neighborhood called Hung Horn, southeast of Chatham Road, an area heavily populated by the city’s Chinese civil servants, in which group, dressed for his commute, he seemed barely likely to belong. Mounted on his bicycle, teetering slightly as he made the turn onto Ma Tau Wai Road, this slender knobby-kneed serious-expressioned man of about 40 looked as though he might be a rickshaw driver on his day off. He didn’t look like anybody important at all.

Ha rode his bike down Ma Tau Wai Road and right onto Wuhu Street and then left onto Gilles Avenue, all the while ignoring the usual press of traffic that raced and squealed and struggled all around him, the other bicyclists, the hurrying pedestrians, the taxis and trucks and double-decker buses and even, though this was off their normal grounds, the occasional bewildered tourist. Gilles Avenue led him at last to the new Hung Horn ferry pier. Until just a few years ago, where he now stood had been Hung Horn Bay, next to the main railway terminal, but the bay had been filled in just recently, to make more precious land, on which had been built the opulent new Harbour Plaza Hotel, five minutes from the railroad terminal and even closer to the ferry pier.

The ferry ran every ten minutes or so, and took only fifteen minutes to cross the harbor, and this was what Martin Ha loved. The view from the ferry. Out in front of him, across the sparkling water, Hong Kong Island gleamed and blazed in the sunshine, its glittering towers bunched together like the crowded upraised lancetips of some buried army. Behind him, almost as huge, almost as modern, almost as gleaming and sleek and new, clustered Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland extension, the gateway to China. In the old days, you could take the train from that railway terminal beside the ferry dock on Kowloon and travel all the way across Czarist Russia and all of Europe to Calais in France, and then board one more ferry, and be in England. The jet plane had changed all that, of course, but the sense of it was still there, the ribbon that tied two worlds together.

The opening of Part Four serves several purposes–first to introduce us to Martin Ha, a Hong Kong police inspector, who bicycles to the ferry every morning, looking like some minor bureaucrat, which is pretty much how he sees himself. He will be informed over the phone by a fellow officer in Singapore that there are some people who have just arrived in his town, with a story he needs to hear. A story that may alarm him somewhat, he is cautioned, and he finds himself hoping it is something out of the ordinary–he could do with some excitement.

It also introduces us to Hong Kong itself, which matters because we need to be reminded this is not merely an idea of a city–this is one of the world’s great gathering points, a hub of commerce and trade, the home and workplace of millions of people–and much of it used to be ocean.  And might be again.

Then it shows us Ha thinking to himself about his city, how much he understands of the world he lives in–and how little–we all take the stability of our daily existence a bit too much for granted at times. No matter how many times Life warns us not to do that.

The surprising thing, Ha thought, as he sat in the air-conditioned back of his official Vauxhall, feeling the slight forward tug of the Star Ferry taking him back across to Kowloon, was how little the city had changed. Everyone had thought the transition from British rule to Chinese rule would be fraught with problems, particularly political and social problems, everything but economic problems, but everyone as usual had been wrong.

In hindsight, it was easy to see why. For one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong had been ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, London. Then, for just a few years, there was an attempt to paste a democratic smile on this autocratic face, but the instant the pressure was released the smile fell off, and now Hong Kong was once again ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, Beijing. Nothing had changed.

Except, of course, for some of the gweilos living in Hong Kong, the expats as they called themselves, the Europeans and Americans, but mostly the British, who had done well by serving the far-off capital of London but couldn’t be expected to receive the same opportunity to batten off the far-off capital of Beijing.

The ones who belonged to the working class, the barmaids and jockeys and interior decorators, mostly took it in good part, vanished when their work permits expired—or shortly after, when they were found to be still on the premises—and were presumably now living much the same lives in Singapore or Macao or Manila or half a dozen other neon-lit centers of the Pacific Rim.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few Richard Curtises had also found the world shifting beneath their feet. The homes they’d enjoyed for so many years up on the Peaks, the steep hills in the middle of Hong Kong Island, behind and south of the main financial districts, they’d sold off to their Chinese counterparts, entrepreneurs who now made their comfortable livings in exactly the same way the Curtises used to do. Those who’d left had sold those mansions on the Peak before the real estate crash; not bad. And if they hadn’t gotten quite as much in the sale as they’d have liked, well, how much money did any one rich person really need?

(To which many a rich person would respond “How much is there?”  That’s how they got rich in the first place.)

But Martin Ha finds it hard to believe this Curtis, who he remembers well as a ‘corner-cutter,’ could really have such a profound grudge against Hong Kong, or that he’d risk everything on some crazy scheme to steal tons of gold from one of the most powerful nations on earth, to cover some bad debts.  (Might as well imagine he’d run for President of the United States.)

So he has lunch with these people, at a world class restaurant in Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotel (where we are briefly told that George and Kim have happily renewed their sexual relationship, and that’s the very last bit of sex you’ll get in this perhaps over-prim Bond pastiche).

He’s hoping to hear a diverting tale, but for all his calm complacency, he’s a thoroughgoing professional, and no fool.  He can tell they’re not hysterics, or cranks, and one of them is a police inspector from Australia, another the somber son of a wealthy German (not known for histrionics, okay one exception, but he was Austrian).

And one is an engineer, who keeps talking about something called a soliton.  And about the solid ground beneath them, which is not solid at all, and only recently ground.

Inspector Ha nodded at the windows. “Hong Kong Island has been added to and added to. The island used to end far back at Queens Road. Just about everything you’re looking at on the flats is reclaimed land.” They all looked at the gleaming towers, and Kim remembered the great bruise of water thundering at her from Kanowit. She suddenly felt cold.

George said, very quietly, “Inspector, you’re using the wrong word.”

“What word?” “Reclaimed,” George said. “Everyone likes to talk about reclaimed land. ‘The new airport is on reclaimed land.’ It’s a wonderfully solid word, but it is a distraction.”

Ha said, “From what?”

“The Dutch reclaim land,” George said. “They build dikes, and force the sea back, and the lands they find are called polders. They’re solid and real, the same lands they always were except they used to have water on them.”

He waved a hand toward the window. “That isn’t reclaimed. It’s landfill.”

Inspector Ha said, “Reclaimed is more…dignified.”

“But landfill is what it is,” George insisted. “Inherently unstable, never quite solid. And now I suppose you’ll tell me there are tunnels under there.”

Of course there are.  They are used for air conditioning in this very hot climate.  The landfill section of Hong Kong, which is most of Hong Kong, is networked with tunnels.  Many of which go right past underground bank vaults filled with gold ingots–also constructed in landfill.  Fifty feet under the surface of what isn’t really solid ground.

But for the soliton to work, these tunnels would have to be connected to each other, as they are presently not–and how might this be done?  By construction crews, working quietly beneath the surface of the city, using one of Hong Kong’s many active construction sites as a front.  And what business is Richard Curtis in?  And in what city did he formerly practice that profession?

What truly alarms Inspector Ha is Luther’s mention of Jackie Tian, a man he knows to be midway between a union bigwig and a gangster–a man of few scruples, who would know basically every qualified worker in town who might be persuaded to engage in such a nefarious venture, could easily arrange for such a project to be undertaken without arousing suspicion.  He informs his luncheon hosts that they have succeeded in alarming him.

Luther Rickendorf, the self-exiled gay scion of a wealthy old German family, has been a somewhat neglected character in the previous three sections of this novel.  He’s made his voice heard throughout, but he rarely speaks when he doesn’t have something significant to say.  He’s been happy to live in the shadow of his more outgoing American lover.  But now the shadow is alone, and wondering what to do with himself.

For Luther, the last few days had been muffled, without resonance, like a pistol shot in a padded room. Or as though his brain and all his senses were in that padded room. Nothing came through to him with much impact or clarity. It was as though he watched the world now on a television monitor, listened to it through a not-very-good sound system.

He still went through the motions. He thought about the problem of Richard Curtis, he took care of his own needs, he responded quite normally to Kim and George and the others, but it was all simple momentum, nothing else. He went through these motions because there was no way to stop them, short of death, and he didn’t much feel like death right now; it would simply be the state he was already in, intensified.

He supposed he grieved for Jerry, but even that was muffled. He couldn’t find in himself much enthusiasm for revenge or justice, though he continued to trudge along with the others in Curtis’s wake. What he was realizing, and even that slowly and without much force, was that in grieving for Jerry he was grieving for a part of himself. Jerry had been his id, the outward expression of all those emotions and instant reactions that Luther had never quite managed to feel or express on his own. Without Jerry, he was merely the cool and amiable somnambulist he used to be, but now with the added memory of there having been once a Jerry.

(That’s also Luther, in the second quote up top, half-wishing he could be there to see the destruction of Hong Kong, the fall of its towers. Maybe he should try moving to lower Manhattan.)

Jerry Diedrich’s reaction to the loss of the man he’d loved before Luther was to lose himself in grief, bitterness, and retribution, leading ultimately to his own destruction (though it must be said, if he hadn’t pursued his grudge with such stubborn fervor, Curtis would be facing no opposition at all now).

Luther, you should pardon the expression, is not such a drama queen.  He processes his feelings more quietly, less directly.  It seems to run in the family, this emotional stolidity.  His father, upon learning his tall blonde athletic son was attracted to men, expressed no anger, no disappointment–he simply indicated he would prefer Luther live out his alternative life away from Germany, has been willing to supply the funds to make this possible.  (It is, in fact, Rickendorf pater who is shouldering much of the bill for Luther and his friends to stay in Hong Kong, in some considerable comfort).  Luther has no strong feelings about any of that, either.  Or is it that he keeps his anger locked away against the day he’ll need it?

Inspector Ha arranges for them to tour the tunnels, and Luther lags behind, still in something of a fugue state, thinking about how he and Jerry will not be spending eternity together in his  family’s ancestral burial vault, as he’d once allowed himself to imagine.  He hears something.  He looks around, curious.  Then he looks up–and Colin Bennett drops down on him, swiftly renders him unconscious, drags him away.

Just bad timing, is all.  Bennett, attending to his duties, got caught by surprise when the tour group came through, concealed himself overhead, had to neutralize Luther once he was detected.  Curtis is angry at the foul-up.  Now he knows for sure Manville is alive, and has come to stop him, and Rickendorf’s disappearance will make Manville’s story all the more believable–but it can’t be helped.  And he can always use another worker to dig in the tunnels.  He wants this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Next chapter is from Mark Hennessy’s POV, and it is not a happy one.  Curtis found out he was Diedrich’s mole.  Instead of just firing Mark, blackballing him as he’d once done to Bennett, Curtis decided to take a more satisfying revenge–and get yet another worker for his tunnels.

I’ve been informed by Greg Tulonen that some of Mark’s development got cut out of the published book, but all I can say to what I’ve read is that I don’t find his transition satisfactory.  He’s been spying on his employer, and doing a good job of it.  He’s been told Curtis is planning something terrible, by people he trusts.  He knows Jerry Diedrich has disappeared, and what’s more, his disappearance is directly linked to a man Mark knows to be in Curtis’s employ, a man who has been trying to learn the identity of the spy.

Luther had begged him over the phone to come talk to the Singapore police, back up the story he and the others are telling, and he refused to even give that very honorable man permission to tell the police his name.   To out him, in effect.

That all being said, it’s very hard to believe somebody smart enough to do what he’s been doing for years, right under Curtis’s nose, is dumb enough not to smell a rat when Curtis abruptly says he wants Mark to come along on a business trip with him.  He decides he’s done his bit for the environment, for his friends, and now it’s time to focus on his career.  His career is about to take an unexpected turn.

He was in the cabin only a minute or two, laying out his possessions on the top bunk, deciding he’d sleep on the lower, when there was a sharp rap at the door. Expecting Curtis, he crossed to pull the door open, and the man from that day in Curtis’s office shouldered in, shoving the door out of the way, punching Mark very hard in the stomach.

Reeling, doubled over, bile in his throat, Mark felt panic and blank astonishment. The man he’d delivered the money for, the one who’d been following Jerry and Luther, who’d done something to Jerry, was here! In this room, shutting the door behind himself. And when Mark stared upward at him, mouth strained open, air all shoved out of him, the man punched him in the face.

Oh, Luther, tell them! Tell the police, force me to change my mind, convince me, make me stay in Singapore and tell the police what I know, make me stay, anywhere but here! Luther, let me not be here!

(Mind you, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that smart/stupid in this world.  Thinking they can play both sides, leaking things to the press, let’s say, while still defending their master in public, collecting their paychecks, padding their résumés, praying there isn’t a Colin Bennett in their future, or just assuming nothing like that could ever happen to them, that’s just in stories.  And history books.  I’m just saying Mark needed a bit more fleshing out for this twist to work.  I don’t know if he got it in the original manuscript, but he doesn’t here.)

Bennett takes Mark to Curtis, who casually remarks that since Mark’s spying cost him some time, he surely wouldn’t mind helping to make up for that by doing a bit of honest labor.  Every time Mark objects, Bennett hits him.  Hard.  He stops objecting.

What follows, once they get him into the tunnels, is a subterranean hellscape, rather like the one experienced by Rolf Malone in Anarchaos, after he was sold as a slave and sent to be worked to death in a mine.  He is beaten mercilessly, fed minimally, allowed little rest, and in no time at all the man he was before crumbles away to nothing, his will broken.  He doesn’t even known if it’s day or night up above.  Well, that’s one way to learn how the other half lives.

What our heroes have to learn is which construction site–out of dozens now active in Hong Kong–is being used to infiltrate the tunnels.  It would take too long to find out which is a dummy corporation.   They’re so dug in now that searching the known tunnels for subtle alterations would likewise take too long.

Manville has a hunch–he remembers Curtis’s story about how the Hong Kong construction firm he took over with his wife’s help was originally called Hoklo Construction–Hoklos being pirates who escaped punishment and achieved respectability by blending into society, once they’d made their pile.  Anybody could be a pirate, hiding in plain sight, was the point.  (I’m sure Westlake read or heard about this somewhere, but I think there’s a whole lot of people who’d object to this characterization.)

Inspector Ha makes a call, and no, there’s no Hoklo Construction, nothing that obvious–but there is a company called Xian Bing Shu–which means ‘rat pie.’  I’m not quite sure whose expense that’s supposed to be at, but it’ll do as a hint.

(Very Long Sidebar: Let me point out one gaping Hong Kong sized plot hole now, and get it out of the way.  Both sides in this struggle seem to be of the opinion that if Curtis pulls off his coup, there’ll be no one left in the world who knows about what Curtis did.  They’ll all be be entombed in mud and rubble, and no fingers will be pointing at Curtis from any direction, and he’ll be safe as houses.

Curtis is seen thinking to himself that he will gradually transform the gold reserves he steals into ‘impulses in cyberspace.’  So there is a well-developed internet.  We know there are cellphones, rarely as they are mentioned.  And the telephone is mentioned quite frequently, as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Ha and Tony Fairchild are high-ranking police officers with easy access to those higher up in the chain of command.   It is hard to imagine that a few calls have not been made to various concerned parties, in Beijing, Australia, and elsewhere.  Maybe emails.  If this story took place in the 19th century, there’d still be time to send a telegram, or a even a goddam letter.

And, lest we forget, there’s Wai Fung, an inspector of equivalent rank in Singapore, who heard the entire story from Manville and the others, referred it to Ha’s attention, and is still in Singapore, immune from Curtis’s machinations.  He was skeptical, but he wouldn’t be once he saw the news footage.

Andre Brevizin, the eminent Brisbane attorney, came to Hong Kong with Manville and the others in Westlake’s surviving draft, but he seems a thorough sort of person, who leaves notes and things–and in this edited down version of the story, he’s still back in Brisbane.

Let’s acknowledge that Curtis is not in an entirely rational frame of mind here, and doesn’t know how many people Manville has talked to.  Let’s acknowledge that there is no absolute proof Curtis intends to destroy every acre of Hong Kong built on landfill, although if he doesn’t, he’s got to split the loot with a lot of other people, any one of whom might someday spill the beans on him.

Let’s acknowledge that it would be impossible to evacuate an island city in the time they have left, that mass panic would ensue were they to publicly announce what they’ve learned, and that Beijing’s reaction to the news might be problematic.  Let’s also acknowledge that nobody in the story has a lot of time to weigh their actions, which is very much by the author’s design.

And acknowledging all that, I think this aspect of the story needed a lot more work, and that Curtis would have to be stark raving to think he’s going to get away with this–I mean, even if they can’t prove a thing, doesn’t Beijing have a few assassins on the payroll?  Curtis doesn’t seem to be that particular kind of crazy.

And let’s finally remind ourselves that Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is today seen by many as the best-written Bond novel, and at the time it came out, none other than Noel Coward found it less outlandish than the previous two, which he admitted wasn’t saying very much.  One must always make some allowances for the literary form being employed.  Back to the story at hand, still bloody gripping for all my cavils.)

Things start happening very quickly now.   Inspector Ha surrounds the fake construction site, demands the workmen open the gate, or he’ll knock it down.   The workmen respond by opening fire, and one of the first to die is Inspector Ha.  He never liked gunplay, and his prejudice was well-founded.  But the point being made is that when  you’re going to arrest a group of men who are in the process of stealing billions in gold from a powerful and ruthless totalitarian government with some truly horrible prisons, best not expect them to come along quietly.  We say farewell to Inspector Ha, a better man perhaps than his world deserves.  (We could use you in America right now, Inspector.)

Curtis is now on a boat in the harbor, waiting for a small remote-controlled cargo submarine to deliver him his pirate gold (I would assume he got this very Bondian gadget from the same place real-life drug lords do).  In touch with Bennett, he gives the order to go ahead with the operation, get the gold to him, then get out of the immediate area before the soliton hits.  They’ll meet up later to divide the spoils.  (The men all think, remember, that it’s only going to obliterate a small area.  In reality, Curtis will be the sole surviving heister.  George Uhl would be envious.)

And that would be game over, were it not for the fact that Luther Rickendorf’s legendary patience has finally run out.  And the berserker within him is finally released.

It was when the man hit Luther on the back of the head with a fist-size stone, when he felt the pain and a runnel of blood trickling down his neck, that he finally snapped out of the stupor he’d been in ever since Bennett had dropped on top of him in the water tunnel. He turned to look at the man who’d hit him, a short compact pugnacious Chinese, who gestured angrily at the pile of rubble in front of them, making it clear Luther was working too slowly. The man tossed the bloodied stone into the tram and glared at Luther, hands on hips. Luther lifted the shovel, turned, and hit him in the face with it.

That time he used the flat of the shovel, but in the melee that followed he used the edge; it made a very adequate lance, producing quite satisfactory gashes in arms and foreheads.

He somehow fights his way outside, bullets flying everywhere.  He gets to the bulldozer blocking the gate, and much like Manville with the pistol safety in Part One, extrapolates from past experience working with snowplows at ski resorts.  He gets the big machine going, smashing through the gate, then smashing into a bus–but the cops are in, and they’re pretty mad now.  These are somewhat shady hardhats, not seasoned heistmen (seasoned heistmen would have either run away or given up when the cops came knocking).  They don’t hold out very long.

But the submarine is out of the tunnel, into the harbor, under Curtis’s control, as he heads for open ocean  He’s still listening on the phone he told Bennett to leave off the hook when the police smash into his operations room and take Bennett prisoner.  He knows Manville is there, but he assumes it’s too late to stop the charges which have already been set–on a timer.  Like last time  With no failsafe.  Like last time.  And the charges are all under water.

There is confusion in the ranks, because the now-ranking officer on the scene was not told by the cautious Inspector Ha what they were trying to prevent here.  Between Fairchild’s experience with policemen, and Manville’s understanding of what lies Bennett has been fed, they get their answers–and Bennett finally comes to the numbed realization that he’s been used.  And Curtis, still listening in on the other line, hangs up.  He’s won.

The diver Curtis used is their captive, but how can they possibly explain to him what needs doing, and why, and then trust him not to just swim away into the harbor himself, which is honestly what any sane person would do right now, given a chance.  Who could be idealistic and foolhardy enough to dive into dark murky water, with less than half an hour remaining, on a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail?  And it has to be somebody certified as an expert diver, who will fit into the scuba gear of a rather small man?

Oh, you guessed.

Kim had never been so frightened in her life. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that great boulder of hard gray water rolling at her from Kanowit Island, surrounding her, submerging her, beating her into a rag doll.

She was now wearing the other diver’s wetsuit and goggles and headlamp and flippers and air tank, thanking heaven he was a small man so it more or less fit. She moved strongly through the black tunnels. The water filling the tunnels was clouded, already beginning to mix with dirt from the temporary cross-tunnels. In a little while, you wouldn’t be able to see down here at all. Of course, in a little while, there would be no down here.

The more she thought about the urgency of the job, the need for speed and efficiency, the more anxious she became. And she knew that could be fatal. She’d almost fallen down the ladder into the water, unable to control her feet in flippers on the ladder rungs. And she didn’t want to dive or fall into that water, because who knew what debris might be in there, to cut her or knock her out.

And now, when she should be concentrating on swimming forward, finding the bombs, defusing them, all she could think about was the destroyer wave off Kanowit Island, all she could do was feed her fear. George hadn’t wanted her to come down here. None of them had wanted her to do it, none of them would have asked her to risk her life to save theirs—to save everyone’s. But who else was there?

So it’s all come full circle from the start of the book, but this time it’s different.  She’s different.  She’s not some dumb kid who thinks she’s immortal anymore, she’s not just acting on impulse.  She knows what the stakes are, and she knows what she has to do.  She knows who she is.  She’s Kim Baldur, and she wants to save the world.  Or at least this one small piece of it.  And she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll die anyway.  Not idealism.  Not heroism.  Enlightened self-interest.  Could save us all if we let it.

So if you read this far, without reading the novel first, you have only yourself to blame.  That quote up top would indicate to me that Westlake at least considered having Curtis succeed in his plan, or partly succeed.  He had, after all, done at least three comparable stories before now, of men with vendettas against whole societies, and they were all to some extent successful, though one of them didn’t live to the end of the story.

It’s not made as clear as it might be, but in my estimation, he’d failed from the moment he tried to have Kim Baldur disposed of on his yacht, before she could wake up.  He’s lived much of his life under the illusion that he can control everything, manipulate everyone, and that led to a cascade error, one mistake leading to another, more and more people paying attention to him.

If he’d made a few less mistakes, he might have destroyed the city he feels betrayed him, destroyed many lives, caused global economic and political chaos–who’s to say he might not have triggered a nuclear exchange, the highest aspiration of many a Bond villain.

But in his mind, it’s all so simple.  He steals the gold, he kills everyone in his way, erases the home he can no longer call his own from existence, and he’s himself again.  He’s Richard Curtis, billionaire construction mogul and developer, working on projects like the Kanowit Island resort, and everyone respects him, or at least pretends to.

He’s perhaps a little like Parker–Beijing driving him forth, like St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland, set off a mental chain reaction, a button pushed inside his head, and he could never know a moment’s peace until the slight had been repaid in full.  What was it Parker said in Butcher’s Moon?  “I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.”  But even Parker didn’t mean that literally.  And Parker’s retribution only touched those who had directly offended him.  And Parker never pretended to be anything but a thief.

That’s the problem.  That’s why he fails.  That’s why the soliton won’t go off, and he will watch, in stunned disbelief, miles offshore, on a boat operated by a married couple who know he’s doing something criminal and they’re the getaway car.  The deadline expires, and the lights of Hong Kong keep glowing in the distance.  Mocking him.

He fails because he doesn’t know himself.  He doesn’t know that he can never be what he was before.  He’s a thief and a killer now, and what’s more he’s a thief and killer who doesn’t keep faith with his fellow thieves and killers.  Or with anyone, really.  He has no code, instinctive or otherwise. Without money, he’s nothing at all.

But he’s no quitter, give him that much.

It’s George, somehow. George Manville has done this to me. He should be dead, the man should be dead, and in any case he’s nothing but an unimaginative engineer, how can he stop me?

Curtis had always known this was a possibility, but he’d had to go forward anyway. His position was untenable and getting worse. He had to get out from under or go under, ruined, disgraced. So he’d had to make this gamble, and now he’d lost.

Thirty-seven minutes.

It wasn’t going to blow. George Manville, of all people, had beaten him. (He never even thought of Kim.)

But was this any worse than to fail the other way? To be sued, hounded, taken through bankruptcy courts, reviled by everyone who used to shake his hand and drink his liquor.  If things had worked out…

If things had worked out, he would have had all the money he needed to solve his problems, and he would not have had one breath of scandal to touch upon him. He would have had his revenge on the city that had tried to destroy him, and he would have continued to be Richard Curtis, owner of Curtis Construction and RC Structural, respected, accepted everywhere in the world.

Well, he had failed, and now that failure was behind him, and it was time to start again. He still had a very few trusted people—the Farrellys at Kennison, for instance—he could rely on. Richard Curtis would have to disappear forever, and gradually he would have to build up a new identity. He had lost a battle, that’s all, not the war.

To disappear meant totally, and that meant he had to start now. Defeat had made him tougher, more decisive. He knew what had to be done, and he wouldn’t shrink from doing it.

He shoots the couple, throws their bodies overboard.  He hadn’t intended to do this before, but now that everyone is going to know what he’s done, now that the world is going to be hunting him, he can no longer count on their discretion, their complicity in his crime, to keep them silent.  He’s truly alone now.  And he just made another mistake.

He’s planning on the fly, and he’s never been good at that (he thinks he is, which only makes it worse).  He can pilot the ship, but he can’t run the risk of being discovered with a submarine full of gold trailing him.  He’s got Mark Hennessy’s papers, that will do for a start.  But he’ll need money to start over.  He’ll need a small portion of the gold, to hide on the boat, and take with him.

He has to surface the sub, tether it to the boat, get on top of the sub, open the hatch, start putting the ingots onboard.  He removes the outer hatch, which drops into the sea–no big deal, he has to sink it to hide the evidence.  It’s not the kind you ride in, anyway.  He’s surprised at how heavy the bars are.  For a man who knows everything about money, he doesn’t know much about gold.

It’s not a one man job.  But there’s nobody left to help him.  His choice.

The rope! Curtis saw it was going to happen, and lunged, but too late. The ships made one more incremental turn away from one another, and the rope tying them together met the spinning propeller of the submarine, and the propeller neatly sliced through.

Immediately the ships lunged away from one another. Curtis saw the lights of Granjya rapidly recede. There were no lights on the submarine.

Dive into the sea? He couldn’t possibly hope to swim fast enough to catch up with Granjya. But if he stayed in the submarine, what then?

Granjya’s lights were fainter, they disappeared. Curtis was getting wet. As the waves ran over the submarine, water ran inside through the two open hatches.

He was in pitch blackness, in this small heaving boat on the surface of the sea. It was riding lower, taking on water faster. There was no light anywhere in the world, except far away to the north, far away, the cold white sheen of Hong Kong against the night sky. Curtis, standing in the hatchway on his gold ingots, his body moving with the roll of the submarine, kept his eyes on that far-off pale glow.

After a while, the lights were still there, but he was not.

It’s not a perfect book.  But that’s a perfect ending.

And we never find out (because this is Donald Westlake, master of the abrupt send-off), what happened with George and Kim’s romance.  Last we see of them, they’re laughing and kissing in sheer relief that it’s over and they’re alive.  Obviously they have no idea if they’re compatible or not, and neither do we, and in this sub-genre it really doesn’t matter.  The sex will be really great in the coming months, and that does.

We never learn whether Luther got over his heartbreak and his mental solitude, or if he ever went home.  Maybe Papa Rickendorf will reconsider his position on the gay thing, in light of his son’s valor under fire?  Nah, I don’t think so either.

We never learn whether Mark got over his trauma, or his shameful understanding that it’s his own fault for trusting a man he of all people knew could not be trusted.

And most of all we never learn how the world reacted to the news that one of its (supposedly) richest men was a shameless blackguard and fraud, utterly bereft of conscience or fellow feeling, willing to go to any lengths to keep what he felt was rightfully his.  I mean, who would have thought such a thing?  (Anyone who ever did business with him.)

It’s an inspired mess of a book.  Fascinating idea, some magnificent bits of writing, several memorable villains, and if the heroes are maybe a bit less convincing, well, that’s because Donald Westlake doesn’t believe in heroes. Never did.

But he did believe, I think, that we have to go on acting as if we believe in heroes–not the idealized heroes of fiction, no.  The ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, once they get going.  Once they realize the alternative to heroism is death.  Enlightened self-interest.

The most chilling thing in this book is its description of the falling towers in Hong Kong, that quote that I put up top.  Not just the caliber of the writing, but the fact that Westlake wrote this in the late 90’s.

And then he would have watched, in disbelief, as it happened before his eyes, not to some distant foreign capital, but to the city he knew and loved most intimately.  And the man who planned that was an engineer.  Of course.  Who came from wealth.  Of course.  Though his motives were quite different from Curtis’s, he was still, I’d imagine, trying to get back something he believed was rightfully his.

And who would want to see anything else after that?  (I’d assume if he had any idea of polishing up this novel and getting it published, that idea was yet another casualty of 9/11)

This novel is a somewhat ill-conducted cacophony of long neglected voices in Mr. Westlake’s head–Culver, Clark, maybe Coe (I think I can hear him in Luther’s head).  But most of all, Stark.  Who had just somehow resurrected himself, and exerted great influence here, but Stark is never fully Stark unless he’s writing about Parker.

And the three remaining Parker novels, published over a period of around four years, were all conceived and created in the post-9/11 era.  They are Stark’s reaction to that event, and what followed it.  They are far better than Forever And a Death, and they are, I’d argue, the last great books Westlake ever produced–not so much as individual volumes, but as a collective work of art.

And they are so much better than his other late work, I would argue, because Stark was the voice at the back of all Westlake’s many voices.  He was the core program, that kept on running strong, after the other more sophisticated softwares had started to fade.  He’s ready to share his code with us one last time.

And Parker is going to meet his two deadliest foes.  The Information Age.  And the Security State.

We’ll see how fast and how far he can run from them.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver, Tucker Coe

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 3

singapore_postcardOddJob_-_Goldfinger_(1964)

In his world, Richard Curtis moved from one tower to another.  Everywhere he went, it seemed, there were plate glass views of sky and land and city and sea, sprinkled with the tiny unimportant dots that were human beings; barely to be noticed.

He didn’t blame Curtis either, for firing him. Curtis had had damn good reason. And Curtis hadn’t even known the full extent of the mess Colin Bennett had made of things. He didn’t know a man had died.

Bennett was a construction man by trade, or had been, a big burly fellow—too large for this Honda Civic, for instance, which he seemed to wear rather than ride in—who had worked for RC Structural for nine years before he’d made his beaut of a mistake. In that time, he’d moved up from crew foreman to works manager, running the whole damn site for the engineers. In those days, he was outgoing and popular, a cheerful rowdy sort of man who claimed he got along with everybody because he looked like everybody, which was very nearly true. His father had been half English and half Malay, while his mother was half Dutch and half Chinese, and the mixture had created a big man whose squarish face featured slightly uptilted eyes, a gently mashed nose, a broad mouth and high prominent cheekbones. His ears lay flat to his skull, and his hair was straight and thick and black, now beginning to gray at the sides.

Part Three of this novel, which may be my favorite, is about henchmen.  And that’s an interesting thing to look at, in fiction and in life.  No scheming megalomaniac is worth a damn without back-up.  And certainly no Bond villain worth mentioning.

Let the names roll down your tongue.  Red Grant.  Fiona Volpe (a henchwoman, evil being an equal opportunity employer).  Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (evil also does not discriminate by sexual preference).  Baron Samedi (or by race, damn, evil gets a bad rap).  Jaws.  May Day.  Also a bunch of blonde personality-deficient Teutons whose names I tend to forget.

The latest was Mr. Hinx, played by wrestler Dave Bautista, and I still don’t understand why he was trying to kill Bond on that train when the plan is for Bond to go to the secret base and get tortured by Blofeld.  Communication snafus; they happen in the best-run organizations.  (And quite often in this novel.)

Only one could be the greatest henchman, to whom all others must be compared and found wanting.  He’s so much better than the others, he doesn’t even need any fucking lines.  Korean in the novel, generically Asian in the movie, where he was played by Harold Sakata–red-blooded American boy, born in Hawaii, Olympic weightlifter, silvered for America in ’48. (Sure, fiction is addicted to forced irony.)

You bounce a heavy gold bar off his chest, he grins, bows slightly, and resumes beating you to death.  Spraypaints blondes, decapitates statues, and he caddies!  One is sometimes moved to inquire as to his haberdasher, but we must all doff our proverbial hats to Oddjob.  He wins the Henchman Derby most handily.

And there can be little doubt it was Auric Goldfinger’s amenable amanuensis Westlake was invoking when he created Colin Bennett.  Bennett is only half-Asian, a sort of Singaporean creole, as is explained in the longer of the two quotes up top (Westlake trying to avoid the casual racism of the Fleming novels, and perhaps inadvertently invoking a different stereotype). He has no training in the martial arts.  He eschews head wear, deadly or otherwise.  His first and perhaps only language is colloquial working class English, and he is anything but mute.  But he’s the Oddjob in this book.  And maybe the best-developed character in it.  His advantage over the original, who isn’t developed at all.

See, the thing about the henchman in a Bond story is, you rarely find out much about him, other than his favored methods of killing people.  How is one attracted to this line of work?  Are the benefits good?  Do they have a strong union? Did a henchman make a particularly engaging classroom presentation on Career Day? One would like to know, somehow.

Their evil employers will usually get a nice explanatory monologue or two in the movie, but the humble henchman’s background and aspirations are typically ignored.  Red Grant being the exception that proves the rule, more in the novel than the film, but they weren’t going to cast Robert Shaw and not give him a backstory, and I suppose class resentment is as good a motive as any–at least he’s not Irish in the movie (which would have been too funny with Connery playing Bond).

As a general rule, the henchman is treated as a sort of deadly found object, who the main villain perhaps ordered through a catalogue or obtained via some headhunting agency (only in this case, the headhunting isn’t metaphorical).

Oh yes, well. If you can get him, of course...

Not here.  We’re going to learn all about Colin Bennett; who he is, where he came from, why he’s so eager to do the criminal bidding of a man who once tossed him aside like a crumpled beer can, how he transitions from guilt-ridden semi-employed ex-drunkard to bumbling private detective to brutal unrepentant killer, all in a matter of days.  Born with a body designed for mayhem, mayhem still wasn’t his first career choice by any means.

His story, in short, is the best identity puzzle in the book, to the point where I almost wonder if the book should have been written entirely from his perspective–a squat bestial Archie Goodwin to Richard Curtis’s less corpulent and cerebral Nero Wolfe.  (Oh please, Goodwin is a total henchman, serving at the beck and call of a man who, if Ian Fleming had created him, would be a villain to make Goldfinger and Blofeld look shabby by comparison.)

His origin story is briefly outlined–he worked for Curtis on a project in Belize, building a hydro-electric dam.  It all went fine, until Bennett, who liked the drink a bit too much, made a really bad mistake, ordering the sluice gates open too soon–before various objects had been cleared from the tunnel–including a man. The man’s body was never found, nothing could be proven, but he knew.  He’d killed somebody.  He also wrecked the turbines, which is what Curtis canned him for.

He’s scraping by in Singapore, subsisting on odd jobs (enjoyed that implicit pun, did you, Mr. Westlake?), when Curtis phones him from the plane he’s on.  Leaving cushy first class in search of reading material, Curtis has spotted Jerry Diedrich & friends back in lowly coach, without being spotted in return.  He needs a man in Singapore to keep watch on the kibbitzing do-gooders, and it can’t be an on-the-books employee, or a by-the-book one either.  He must acquire an unregistered weapon he can point at these–

THREE:

When the phone rang this afternoon, in his shabby little apartment off China Street, Bennett had been hopelessly studying yet again the help wanted ads in the Straits Times. These days, he had one part-time job as a messenger, and another unloading trucks at a lumber yard, but the work was dispiriting and the pay meager. Still, without references…

Then the phone rang. Not knowing what to expect, and not expecting very much, he’d answered, and the astonishing voice had said, “Colin, this is Richard Curtis.”

“Mr. Curtis!” It was like getting a phone call from God, it was that impossible.

“I’m calling from an airplane,” the astounding Mr. Curtis said, “and I want to make this fast.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

“I’m wondering if you’re a more controlled person these days.”

“Oh, I am, sir! Honest to God.”

“If you do a little job for me, Colin, it might make me think better of you.”

“Oh, yes, sir. Just tell me what it is, sir.”

“There’s an annoying fellow from Planetwatch on this plane. Remember Planetwatch?”

“Oh, do I. Right buffoons.”

“Worse than buffoons, Colin. They can make trouble. This fellow, Jerry Diedrich, is determined to make trouble. Write that name down.”

“Yes, sir!” He already had the pen in his hand, hoping to find job offers to circle, and he wrote the name on the margin of the newspaper.

He goes to Curtis’s corporate headquarters, doubtless where Curtis got Bennett’s current phone number in the first place.   (Bennett lost his home, marriage, and family after he lost his job, though less because of his newfound poverty than the pent-up rage stemming from it–frightening in a man that size.)

He gets photos of Diedrich, and brief descriptions of the other two.  He waits at the airport, sees Curtis leaving in a hurry (first class deplanes first, natural order of things), thinks admiringly of how the boss never even gives him a sideways glance as he goes by.

He sights his quarry, follows them to their inexpensive motel, notes with some confusion that the pretty blonde girl gets her own room and the two men bunk together.  He goes back to the office to report, whereupon Curtis curtly explains that Diedrich and Rickendorf are ‘fairies,’ to which Bennett has pretty much the standard response for a construction worker who is not himself gay.

He gets five thousand in Singapore dollars, since he has no credit cards himself now, and they can’t very well issue him a corporate card. Curtis tells him to buy himself some new clothes with what he doesn’t need for the job, so he can look the part of a tourist, but Bennett realizes, with gratitude, (bear in mind that Curtis didn’t just fire Bennett, he made sure nobody else in their industry would ever employ him), that he’s really saying “I don’t want you to look so down in the mouth while you’re working for me.”  Bennett’s devotion to his once and present master is getting stronger by the minute.  He’d kill for me, Curtis thought, surprised to realize it was true. And that he might have to.

Curtis tells him to check into the same motel and follow Diedrich everywhere, taking photos of anybody Diedrich talks to with a Polaroid camera (digital not a thing yet?)  He will bring the photos to Curtis, in an effort to find out which well-placed person in Curtis’s employ is passing Diedrich information.  He will also bug Diedrich’s motel phone.  Aside from the identity of the mole, he’s to try and find out the source of Diedrich’s obsession with Curtis (more to satisfy his employer’s curiosity than anything else).

So, basically a P.I.  They do have those in Singapore, as they do in most large cities.  Curtis must have hired people to do corporate espionage before now.  That would be the way to go now, not some amateur who couldn’t even do the job he was trained for properly–that is, if Curtis wasn’t already contemplating the possibility of having Diedrich and the others killed.  He’s not ordering Bennett to do that–he’s not ordering him not to, either.  Fact is, he doesn’t really care if they live or die, as long as they’re out of his way.  Diedrich, in particular, is the most persistent gadfly he’s ever encountered, and he needs to find some way to swat the pest.

But he will learn he’s created a far more dangerous pest, by refusing to let well enough alone.  Curtis has a pernicious tendency to make his troubles worse in trying to end them.  (The name Comey comes popping into my mind, for some reason.  Which Bond novel was he in?)

Meanwhile, back at the Australian ranch, the other henchman in this story, Morgan Pallifer, is getting bored playing babysitter to George Manville, Curtis’s unwilling guest.

Chapter 4 in Part Three is pure unadulterated Richard Stark.  I don’t mean that Westlake was channeling Stark when he wrote it.  I mean Stark wrote it.  Entirely possible he was switching back and forth between this and a Parker novel–my guess would be Backflash, going by the dates, but who knows?

And Chapter 4 is so good, you almost have to wonder if Stark should have stayed in the driver’s seat all the way through.  Just five and a half pages long.  Stark pops up elsewhere in this book, but never quite so–starkly.

Morgan Pallifer was nearing the end of his rope. Not only was he stuck on land, extremely dry land at that, with no significant body of water for hundreds of miles in any direction, but his job had somehow been reduced to that of babysitter. No action in it at all, no movement. Nothing to do, day and bloody night, but play nanny, with assistant nannies Steve and Raf. Now, there was nothing wrong with Steve and Raf, Pallifer had chosen them because they were professional and reliable in a crisis, but if you didn’t happen to have a crisis on your hands, those two were not what you might call stimulating company.

As for George Manville, Pallifer found him a disgusting disappointment. Where was the fire, the resistance, the defiance? Where were the escape attempts, the maneuverings to get at a telephone or a vehicle, the confrontations with his jailers? But no; all Manville did was sit around and read.

Pallifer would be right at home in a Parker novel.  A tough man, and a smart one, but he overrates himself.  And once again he underrates his opponent.  Manville is doing more than reading.

As Pallifer prepares to head out to kill Kim Baldur, having finally gotten the name of the Gold Coast motel she checked into with Manville (which she has long since departed, and it says something for his opinion of women that he actually thinks she’d still be there), his sidekicks inform him Manville has disappeared.  He’s also informed that Manville was listening at the window when he got the call about the motel.

Not knowing what Manville might have heard, Pallifer figures it doesn’t matter–he can’t escape the sprawling outback station, and they’ll find him sooner or later.  He’s got to go before nightfall, or he won’t be able to find his way off the place himself.  He’s got to get out of this dreary place.  Back to the coast, where a shark like him belongs, doing what sharks most love to do.  And you know, when a shark stops swimming, it dies.

So he’s heading down the highway, stops to take a piss, and comes back to find Manville sitting in the back seat.  He was in the trunk.  He heard quite a lot at that window.

“If you’re going to that motel,” Manville said, “then Curtis still wants Kim Baldur dead, no matter what he said to me.”

“So the deal’s off, is that it?”

“That’s it. Drive, Mr. Pallifer.”

He might as well; there was no point just sitting here, on an empty highway. He put the Honda in gear, and they started again to drive east.

When he’d got into the car, back at Kennison, he’d put a pistol in the glove compartment, the one he figured to use on the girl. Now he glanced at the glove compartment, thinking about it.

Manville said, “It isn’t there anymore.”

“I thought not,” Pallifer said. He looked at that expressionless face in the rearview mirror, then watched the road. “You heard me on the phone, then you hid out till I put my bag in here, so you knew which car I’d be taking, and then you got in the trunk. Where were you, before?”

“On top of the framework for the garage doors, between that and the ceiling.”

“So you could look to see which vehicle I was gonna take. But what if I just got in it and drove away?”

“At first,” Manville told him, “I was going to drop on you as soon as you opened the driver’s door. But then, when you came in and opened and closed the trunk, and went away again, I saw I could do it more quietly.”

“Well, you’re pretty cute,” Pallifer said, and slammed on the brakes, sluing the wheel hard right across the empty road with his left hand while his right hand snaked inside his jacket to whip out his other pistol. Pressed against the door, he turned, whipping the pistol around, and Manville shot him in the head.

Even Manville’s trick–hiding over the garage door–straight out of The Blackbird. Grofield was in a similar situation at that remote lodge in Canada.  Manville should be grateful he was at least maneuvering in a warm climate.

Manville disappears from the story for a number of chapters after this, then shows up suddenly in Singapore to save Kim from Bennett (kind of), later in Part Three.  The other two men eventually go looking for them, but never find Pallifer’s body, or the car.

There’s no Stark Rewind, as in the Parker books, to catch us up in real time with what Manville was doing between the end of Chapter 4 and his return in Chapter 17.  George briefly tells a dazed Kim how he went back to Brisbane, met with Brevizin again, they got in touch with Inspector Fairchild, compared notes, and now they all know they’ve been had.  She’s got a few things to tell him as well, but we’ll need a rewind of our own to cover that.

Fairchild is in Singapore too, to vouch for George’s story.  In the original manuscript, Brevizin came along for the ride, and there really were a few too many moving parts in this one.  What we do find out is that Curtis only hears about this little complication for his plans a week later, when his other two flunkies finally realize they better call him.  He hasn’t bothered to check in.  Too preoccupied with other projects, and there have been some major hitches with the one that involves destroying Hong Kong.   He decides both Pallifer and Manville are probably dead.

It’s not entirely out of character for Curtis not to sweat the small stuff, avid multi-tasker that he is.  Again, he just tends to think people will stay where he left them.  Particularly with armed guards watching them.  Maybe a bit of a stretch that he’d flat-out forget to tell Pallifer to forget about killing the Baldur girl in Australia, once he’d seen her on the plane to Singapore.  You don’t often see holes like that in a Parker novel.  Too many cooks here?

This is a recurrent problem Westlake has with this book, trying to rationalize a type of story that is, at its heart, irrational.   When you’re reading a Fleming novel, or watching one of the movies, you just kind of go with it–since it’s all nonsense, the more nonsensical elements don’t stand out much.  But this is too intelligently written for the parts that don’t make sense not to bother you.

Back to the surviving henchman, who does make sense, in his own twisted way. Let’s talk about what happened between Chapters 4 and 17.  Which is that Colin Bennett became a killer.  Though in his mind, he’s been one for a long time now.

There’s a lot of the old hugger-mugger in those chapters, where Bennett is following the troublesome trio around, trying to see who they meet up with. Somebody named Mark, he learned that much, but Curtis has thousands of employees, that isn’t enough.  He knows Mark is gay, like Diedrich and Rickendorf.  He follows them to a gay bar, but to everyone’s shared bafflement, Mark doesn’t show.

(Sidebar: Yes, there were gay bars in Singapore in the 90’s.  I was skeptical, seeing as there are still draconian anti-gay laws in that town (no anti-lesbian statutes, and trans-genders are allowed to marry, go figure), but there used to be in New York City too, and there was Stonewall in ’69, and many such places before it.  The whole gay rights movement in Singapore is decades behind ours, but there’s a scene that goes back generations, organizing patiently, waiting their moment, and may it come soon.)

Bennett refers to this particular establishment as being for older more well-heeled a clientele, ‘fellows with umbrellas.’  Funny bit where Kim wants to go with them for the meet, is told she won’t fit in, then lies about how she’s been to gay bars before.  Luther, genuinely interested, says “Really?  Why?”  She relents, stays at the motel, leafs through magazines, looking for something to read, and suddenly realizes–they’ve been moved–her room has been searched.

Mark spotted the tail easily–Bennett is not exactly unobtrusive, no self-respecting queer would ever dress like some tacky tourist for a night on the town, and anyway, Mark’s the Curtis employee who brought the expense money for Bennett.  He suggests over the phone (that Bennett has tapped) that they meet at Empress Place, a huge outdoor market, always crowded.  And once again, Jerry and Luther don’t see him–but this time Kim is along, wandering around, and Mark makes contact through her.

They end up meeting on a bus–Bennett follows in a car, but he can’t see inside, doesn’t know what’s happening.  Mark doesn’t know much of anything either. (Curtis is not confiding any part of his plan to anyone he doesn’t need to carry it out–he’s not telling anybody at all the whole of what he has in mind for Hong Kong.  A clear violation of Bond villain protocol, as has been mentioned already.)

Jerry is convinced he finally has Curtis by the short and curlies–he’s going to do something horrible, and if Jerry can find out what it is, he’s got the bastard, at long last.  Mark promises to try to find out more, and Jerry says he’ll reach out to his Planetwatch contacts there.  And I guess you could say this is an environmental issue, if not the kind that Planetwatch would normally be involved with.

And this is the problem, the reason why things are about to take a tragic turn for a man who wants to be the hero of this story, but isn’t going to be.  Jerry Diedrich is caught between worlds, between identities.  In public, he’s a crusading environmentalist, but in private he’s just trying to even an old score that only he knows or cares about.  In some ways, his subplot is reminiscent of Little Bob Negli’s from The Seventh.  (To say why would be giving the twist away–stop reading if you don’t want to know it).

Realizing that there could be many lives at stake here, sincerely wanting to prevent whatever Curtis is planning, he still can’t see past his own grievance.   Or grasp the reality that he’s in more danger than anyone.  It’s not a windmill he’s tilting at here.  It’s an evil sorceror, served by a very real giant.

They know now about Bennett, see him everywhere, watching them, waiting for them to meet their informant, but Jerry is keeping in touch with him via payphone, and they won’t do any more face-to-face meets.

And the irony is that all Curtis has to do about Diedrich & Co. is nothing. Nobody but his partners in crime know his target for the soliton, not even they know his ultimate goal.  Mark’s covert investigations remain fruitless, though he does tell them Curtis met with a Jackie Tian, from Hong Kong–big wheel in the construction union there.  (Another henchman.)

Never occurs to the tenacious triumvirate that as they are getting ever more desperate to learn Curtis’s plans, Curtis is putting ever more pressure on Bennett to find out what they’re up to, by whatever means necessary.  Bennett doesn’t cope well with pressure.  Never has.  He won’t go back to the odd jobs.  He’s convinced himself that a grateful Richard Curtis will put him back where he belongs.  If he gets results.

He follows them to a restaurant.  He follows Jerry into the men’s room.  He knocks Jerry out with a piece of pipe, and stuffs him through a small window. Takes him to his tiny apartment and ties him to a chair.

As Kim and Luther grow ever more frightened about what might have befallen their friend, Colin Bennett, who never intentionally harmed a living soul before now, is learning how to be a torturer.  Kicks to the ribcage are not getting him Mark’s last name.  Jerry’s having trouble breathing after the fall he took going out that window.  Bennett perceives a vulnerability he can exploit.

Back in the living room, Diedrich hadn’t moved. Bennett walked through into the bedroom and pulled that sock once more out of the laundry. Bringing it back with him, carefully shutting the bedroom door, he knelt before Diedrich and showed him the sock and said, “Do you see what this is?”

Diedrich gave the sock a dull look, then apparently remembered he was supposed to respond to questions, so he said, “Yes.”

“It’s a sock.”

“Yes.”

“I was using it to gag you, so you wouldn’t be shouting for help and like that, such as you did, but when I put it in your mouth, turns out, your nose isn’t working. So I had to take it out again. It was like this.”

Diedrich tried to fight, but Bennett was stronger. He pried his jaws apart and stuffed the sock inside. “And now I’ve got to wash me hands, you see,” he said, and got to his feet, and turned away from the strangling sounds Diedrich made, his legs kicking on the floor.

Bennett went into the bathroom and washed and dried his hands. When he came back out, Diedrich’s eyes were popping, his face was mottled dark red, he was straining every muscle in his body. Bennett casually pulled the sock from his mouth, and Diedrich made horrible sounds, flopping like a captured fish in the bottom of the boat. Breathing seemed to be painful for him, but at least it was possible.

Bennett sat in his chair to wait for Diedrich to be recovered enough to talk. He wasn’t a cruel man, he didn’t do this sort of thing, had never done this sort of thing, but he had no choice, did he? In for a penny, in for a pound. And he’d always believed, if you take on a job, you do it as best you know how. No self-satisfied smug little poofter like Jerry Diedrich was going to ruin Colin Bennett’s life, and that was that. That was that. No second thoughts about it.

This is, of course, right out of The Ax.  (And you can see it also in the one death in The Hunter that Parker never intended to cause.)  The final murder in The Ax, involving duct tape.  Bennett and Burke Devore, from very different backgrounds, would understand each other quite well.  Both are trying to get back to an earlier cherished self, transforming into a newer harder self in the process.  But whereas Burke only needed certain men to die, Bennett needs information first, which is trickier.

Diedrich, deeply ashamed of himself, but broken, spits out Mark’s last name–Hennessy.  And has to watch, as a satisfied Bennett phones Curtis, right in front of him, and gives him the name–which he recognizes.  Someone very highly placed in his organization.  Someone who is going to end up wishing Curtis had just fired him.

Bennett hasn’t yet decided to kill his prisoner.  He has no criminal record; it would just be Diedrich’s word against his (and he still thinks Curtis would protect him, when in fact Curtis is going to great pains to make sure he can’t be connected to Bennett).  But he still needs to find out one more thing–why?  Why has Diedrich gone to such pains, taken such risks, to go after a man who was never, after all, more of an eco-criminal than scores of other in his business.  It’s personal.  So who was the person?

The answer fills Bennett with terror, and then guilt–the latter emotion coming from the last bit of humanity left in him.

Diedrich had a lover, before Luther Rickendorf.  Daniel Foster.  They were going to be married.  He worked for Curtis.  On a dam construction project.  In Belize. He disappeared.  Diedrich made inquiries, and found out about the accident. The accident Colin Bennett caused, the accident that got him fired from his job, blackballed from the construction business, but Jerry never knew about that.  He just assumed Curtis had covered it up, when in fact Curtis never even know Daniel Foster’s name.

He needed a place for his rage and grief to go–an emotional soliton, seeking the path of least resistance, and who easier to blame than a reckless uncaring billionaire who acted as if nothing had happened at all?  So he devoted his life to destroying Richard Curtis.

And in doing this, in pursuing his white whale across the oceans of the world, he created complications that Curtis, pursuing his own path of vengeance, could not ignore–forced him to make one mistake after another, pushed him into hiring a man like Colin Bennett, who has now come face to face with the one moment in his life he’s most ashamed of.  But it’s too late.  Too late for shame now.  Too late to say he’s sorry.

The man said, “I’ve been a guilty fellow and a beaten fellow for a long time. My marriage broke up, I was blackballed everywhere. Not looking for sympathy, you know what I’m saying, but I’ve been punished. Oh, you can believe that. You wanted somebody punished for what happened to your friend, well, you got your wish.”

“If Curtis didn’t…” Jerry began, but then didn’t know what it was he even wanted to ask.

The man nodded at him. “Curtis knew you were there,” he said. “For a long time, Mr. Curtis, he’s known you were out there, a thorn in his side. A mosquito, but a bad mosquito. You know, he didn’t say to me to kill you, that isn’t the sort of man we’re talking about here. He said to me, Colin, find out who’s the traitor in my camp, and for the love of God, Colin, find out what this fellow Diedrich has against me.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry said. He couldn’t look at the man anymore.

“Well, so I’ve done the job,” the man said. “Haven’t I, Jerry Diedrich?”

“Yes.”

“I’m a willing worker, you know, I’m deserving of trust. I’m deserving of a second chance. Don’t you think so?”

“You’ll get your second chance,” Jerry said, not trying to hide the bitterness he felt.

“Well, but there’s the rub,” the man told him. “I’ve given Mr. Curtis the information on this fellow Hennessy, so he’s pleased with me for that. But can I answer his other question? Can I tell him why it is you’ve been hounding him all this while?”

Jerry looked at him, and now he understood why the temperature in the room had changed. He whispered, “I’ll never tell anybody, I swear.”

“Now, why would I trust you?” the man asked him. “What sort of relationship have we had, you and I, that I would trust you? You’ve already told your lover friend there, haven’t you? The German boy.”

“No! I never told anyone!”

“You? A bigmouth like you?” The man seemed almost amused by him. “And the girl with you,” he said, “You couldn’t resist telling her, could you, for a sympathetic smile?”

“Honest to God, no, I never told— I never told anybody, I never will tell anybody!”

“Oh, I know that,” the man said.

“Please. Please. I swear to you, I’ll never say a word, you can trust me, not a word to anybody, I’ll never bother Curtis again. I’ll—”

“I know all that,” the man said, and stood. “I know all that, because you’re going to keep your mouth shut.” He went down on one knee beside Jerry. “You know the saying,” he said. “When you want somebody to shut up and keep shut up, what is it you say?”

He waited, but Jerry didn’t answer. Finally, almost gently, the man gave the answer himself: “Put a sock in it.”

So that’s how Colin Bennett commits his first (and arguably only) murder.  Not for some smug supervillain, not acting as some politely smiling cipher in a flat-topped razor-tipped bowler, a most memorable and impressive two-legged plot device, the source of whose devotion to an employer who will order him to die in a nuclear blast remains forever a mystery, because he was never really a human being to start with.

Colin Bennett, human to the core, became a murderer as an act of self-preservation.  He started out like the rest of us.   Built a decent life for himself, a trade, a family, and then he lost it all with a single moment’s miscalculation, as could happen to anyone, at any moment in time, and so often does.

And having lost the man he once was, he was open to becoming some other man, a man Richard Curtis could use, while still deluding himself (as did Pallifer, as does Jackie Tian, as does Richard Curtis himself) that he could find a way back to that earlier more innocent self.  Perhaps even Jerry Diedrich shared in this delusion to some extent, but at least he wasn’t some rich man’s toadie, and the only one he ever tried to hurt deserved it, more than he ever had a chance to know.

Bennett could have tried to be his own man for once, but strong as his body is, he’s weak as water on the inside, looking for something outside himself to give him form, purpose, agency.   Weak men must have masters, always, and that’s where henchmen come from.  He sees in Curtis the kind of power and success he wishes he had, blames him for nothing, unleashes his resentments at more vulnerable targets–like environmental activists who happen to be gay.  But hey, it’s just a story.  Right?

Much as he may resemble Burke Devore in some respects, he’s not a reader, doesn’t have a family to anchor him, and so he is going to make murder the answer to everything.  Having started down this road, he won’t stop.

The other two would be more complicated. Lying in bed, in no hurry to rise, he thought about ways to kill them, and then smiled at his own thoughts. He’d never deliberately considered killing anybody before, and hadn’t originally intended (so far as he knew) to kill Diedrich, but now that it had been done, something new had opened up inside Bennett, because now he saw what a solution this was. How easy, and how permanent. The solution to so many problems.

Well, he should get to it, shouldn’t he? They’d be missing Diedrich, they might have already reported his disappearance to the police. Before they made too many waves, before they did too much talking to too many people, he should stop them. The good new permanent way.

He starts with Kim, but she fights back long enough for Manville to make his surprise re-entry to the story.  Manville doesn’t have a pistol this time (say this for Singapore, they have excellent gun control), and he’s no match for Bennett in physical altercation (any more than Bond was a match for his prototype), but he distracts the hulking henchman long enough for Kim to give him a dose of hairspray in his eyes.  He escapes through the window, to the amused laughter of workmen who assume he was screwing the blonde American girl and then her husband discovered them–but they’re still witnesses.  He registered at the motel under his own name.  His life in Singapore, such as it was, is now over.

So he meets up with Curtis, who still has uses for him, and isn’t sorry to hear Diedrich is no more (Bennett will never tell him what really happened or why). He had never intended to create such a monster, had never really thought about the potential consequences of ordering a deeply depressed non-professional to do this kind of work, but now that it’s happened–

Curtis took the opportunity to study Bennett, this shambling messy creature across from him, and consider what he had done and what he seemed willing to do. He hadn’t realized how much of a brute Bennett was, and the knowledge was both pleasing and alarming. The man could be even more useful than Curtis had thought, but he would also be more dangerous, because he clearly wasn’t very smart. To take Diedrich home!

Curtis tells him that they’re going on a trip together.  He doesn’t need to know where the trip ends just yet.  (Curtis is quite wrong to think he knows where the trip ends but we’ll get to that next time.)  Curtis tells him that Mark Hennessy, who has no idea he’s been found out, and ignored Luther’s desperate warnings, will be coming along with them.

And then even Richard Curtis, on the verge of killing millions, is a bit frightened by the eager smile that creases his golem’s face at this news.  Here’s the other thing about henchmen; they tend to get a bit, shall we say, overenthusiastic about their work?

And there’s other stuff in Part Three, about how the new triumvirate of George, Kim, and Luther, aided by the now fully convinced Inspector Fairchild, try to convince the understandably skeptical Singapore authorities that something terrible is going to happen, and one of the richest most influential men in Singapore is going to do it, only they don’t know what.  Or where.  Or even when. But soon.  That they know.

And next time we’re going to finish this novel.  That I know.  And you’re going to see the book cover that might have been.  From an artist whose name you should all know.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 2

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She rubbed her eyes. “What’s that you’re reading?”

He showed her the cover. “It’s a caper story, called Payback, by an Australian writer named Gary Driver. He’s imitating the Americans, but he’s pretty good. He’s teaching me how to behave in dangerous situations.”

Grinning at him, she said, “You behave fine.”

This is Westlake’s globe-trotting novel, his most extensive tour of the eastern hemisphere.  Begins well out at sea in Part One.  Part Two is set in Queensland; the greater Brisbane area, then the outback.  It’s off to Singapore for Part Three.  And then the big finish in Hong Kong.

Most of Westlake’s best fiction is set in the U.S., but he loved to travel–and then put the places he’d visited in his stories.  He wrote about Canada now and then, Mexico and South/Central America much more often.  He liked the Caribbean as well; Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and he became the most improbable author of an entire non-fiction book on Anguilla.

He dabbled in European intrigue, but not much.  He devoted an entire novel to East Africa, where he spent some time doing research, and there are other books that reference his enduring fascination with that continent.   He ventured to Moscow, very briefly, in Humans.  Perhaps in reality as well, though some of his traveling was doubtless of the armchair variety.

So aside from his desire to make something out of the premise he’d dreamed up for a Bond film that never got made, he might also have thought that since this type of story usually comes with multiple changes of setting, he could cross several more exotic locales off his bucket list in the process of writing it.

The problem with a globe-trotting novel, of course, is that the author’s treatment of the various settings will, of necessity, be more superficial.  Westlake did research, some of it in person (possibly some of it in preparation for writing the film treatment), but he could never have the same connection with Brisbane or Singapore that he did with Manhattan or Albany.  There are a lot of references to local restaurants in this novel–and Charles Ardai has indicated there were a lot more of those before he edited the manuscript.  Well, that’s one of my my favored methods of world exploration as well.

His heroes are themselves mainly unfamiliar with the terrain they’re negotiating, and therefore supposed to feel disoriented and out of touch.  His villain, by contrast, is fully at home in all of these places.  One of which he intends to destroy.

So last time out, engineer George Manville and environmental activist Kim Baldur had escaped Richard Curtis’s yacht, after four hired thugs tried to kill them at Curtis’s behest–leading to Manville critically injuring two of them.

After tying up the remaining two, Manville and Kim take the boat their would-be assassins arrived on, and make for Brisbane harbor.  Kim is still feeling the effects, both physical and emotional, of her close encounter with the soliton wave that nearly killed her.  Manville is wondering if he’s going to have a career to go back to, after defying one of the richest and most powerful men on earth, who he now knows intends to put Manville’s soliton technique to use in some way that will be both criminal and destructive.  But that’s all he knows.  Except that now they’re–

TWO:

Movement made him turn his head, and there was now somebody seated next to him. He was in his forties, heavyset, a bruiser with a large round head, thick bone above his eyebrows, a broken nose. Manville had never seen him before, but he knew at once that this man was connected to the killers on the ship. And that something bad had happened to Kim.

The man leaned forward, as though he wanted to deliver a secret. “George Manville,” he said. Manville looked carefully at him.

The man’s large bony hands rested on the table, empty. He didn’t act threatening, he was just there.

“Yes,” Manville said.

The man nodded. “If you look out there,” he said, his voice raspy but soft, his accent showing him to be a local, “you’ll see a fella that isn’t walking. He’s looking at you. He’s got his hands in the pockets of kind of a big raincoat.”

Manville looked. “I see him.”

It was another stranger, cut from the same cloth as this one. The man said, “If I stand up and walk away from this table, and you don’t stand up and follow me, that bloke’s gonna take a machine pistol out of his pocket and blow your head off. And probably a few other heads around here, too. He’s got rotten aim.”

This is, oddly, my least favorite section of the book, yet includes some of my favorite moments from it–many of which are more than a little redolent of Richard Stark, who at the time of writing had only just made his return.  Elements from past novels by Stark, and elements from novels Stark had not yet written, that would be published long before this novel.  Westlake hated to let good words go to waste.  And Stark famously wasted no words at all.

At 34, Manville is ten or eleven years older than Kim–which is, when you think about it, less than the average age gap between an actor playing James Bond and whatever actress they hire to play the girl he’ll be screwing at the end of the movie.  Michelle Yeoh, whose character in Tomorrow Never Dies was at least tangentially influenced by Westlake’s original story treatment, was nine years younger than Pierce Brosnan.  I’d guess a similar age gap existed between Mr. Westlake and his third wife, but I don’t really know. Just a number anyway, right?

Obviously there’s going to be a romance between them, though they will decidedly not be screwing at the end of this novel, and only twice during it.  Not hard to justify, given that George just put himself at considerable risk to save Kim’s life, they’re hiding out in motel rooms, they’re both good-looking people, and the close encounter with death they shared would serve as a natural aphrodisiac.  That isn’t the problem, and Westlake had long experience writing stories about men and women finding love in dangerous circumstances.

This is not going down as one of his better efforts in that regard, and the love story is not that central to the plot.  He’s trying to make the obligatory Bond-style hook-up a bit more real here, to rationalize it, as he is rationalizing all the elements that go into a standard 007 yarn.  There’s rarely much of an effort to justify the sex in a Bond film (the latest did an above-average job of it, it still feels tacked on, and Lea Seydoux is seventeen years younger than Daniel Craig–the record age gap is thirty–it’s good to be the king, huh?)

Kim isn’t a ‘Bond Girl’–she’s as much Bond as Manville is.  She’s going to perform some of the tasks that Bond normally would handle (though her license to kill never gets stamped).  Her big moment is going to come in Part Four.  Manville’s big moments come in Parts One and Two, and he’s mostly absent from Part Three.

He’s absent when Part Two begins, having docked the boat under a bridge, and gone to get some things they need, like fresh clothing.  Kim waits for hours, knowing George took a huge risk to help her, feeling grateful, and at the same time doubting he’ll come back.  And then he does.   Her relief is as complicated as her doubts were.

George is older, more experienced, and knows how Curtis operates.  Kim wants to go to the police (her fellow activists and her parents all still believe she’s dead), but he says Curtis will probably try to make them out to be the criminals (which he does).  He’ll also try to get George blackballed as an engineer (which he does).  George needs to find allies, get the lay of the land, and he doesn’t know Australia that well.  He’s being cautious, but Kim is right–they should go to the cops.

He also needs a place he and Kim can disappear for a while, and figures that’ll be the Gold Coast, Australia’s Miami Beach, not a long drive from Brisbane.  Jammed with tourists, and they can blend in for a while.  But most of those tourists aren’t Yanks, which is going to make it easier for Curtis’s men to find them.

Fact is, Curtis has not given up on killing Kim, even though there’s every chance she’s going to reach out to friends and family before he can make that happen (though she takes her own sweet time doing that).  This is yet another mistake, him trying to tie down every possible loose end when that simply isn’t possible, but it’s consistent with the character–he doubles down on bad ideas, refuses to admit he can’t control everything.

His head flunky, Morgan Pallifer, a 62 year old American exile who served time for drug smuggling, and will do pretty much anything Curtis asks of him to get what he wants (his own boat), is very eager for another crack at the man who surprised and humiliated him aboard that yacht, but Curtis tells him to get Manville alive, if possible.  He knows now that he can’t bring George into his full confidence, but he’s not 100% sure he won’t need help with calculations for the much more powerful soliton he’s planning for Hong Kong.  This is plausible–barely.  And no Bond story is ever complete without the hero being brought to the villain’s lair as a guest/prisoner.

So George and Kim get a bit of breathing space, while Curtis’s men look for them. There’s a cute angle to their first sexual encounter, in that Kim’s ribs are still badly bruised, and George, always the engineer, has to figure out a position they can comfortably connect in.  I’m going to guess female-superior, but for the life of me I don’t know why Westlake makes us guess, after all the raunchy scenes he wrote for Kahawa.

(It’s not just the leering lecher in me that thinks Westlake made a mistake here–a good healthy sex scene or three between these two would have been a way to demonstrate the growing connection between them without investing a lot of time he doesn’t have to make that relationship feel genuine.  Wouldn’t have hurt book sales any either.  Westlake never fully recovered from having to write endless bouts of intercourse for the sleaze paperback market, before he got established in the mystery genre.  Anything but prudish, he still tended to write around the sex in most of his subsequent books, though the exceptions were worth the wait.  And that mainly worked for him, but here it’s a problem.)

George, still being cautious, meets a high-powered Brisbane attorney that a mutual friend put him in touch with–Andre Brevizin.  He tells him the whole story, and Brevizin, a sophisticated man who has heard some rumors that Curtis’s financial situation is shaky, half-believes him.  By this time, Curtis has connived with a fellow billionaire to frame Manville, make it look like he was engaged in industrial espionage, and the story has gotten some coverage.  So Brevizin can’t be sure Manville isn’t just blowing smoke to cover himself.

In the meantime, Pallifer’s men find Kim at a Brisbane cafe, waiting for George to come back (it’s not explained how, they’re supposed to be searching the nearby resort town).  Her injuries mainly healed, she manages to lose them in the crowd, and here’s where we run into another problem–she and George ought to have picked up cheap cellphones by now, to stay in touch when separated.  They’d have stores for that in a major tourist trap like Gold Coast.

What time period is this book set in?  We know it was written in the mid-to-late 90’s.  Westlake showed it to his agent in 1998.  The word cellphone occurs twice in the entire novel–both times in relation to secondary characters.   No mention of Curtis having one, though he uses an in-flight phone on an airliner, and he’s got some kind of ship-to-shore phone on his yacht.

Westlake’s techno-phobia was more than mere conservatism–there are all kinds of plot complications, a certain approach to depicting daily existence that a writer gets used to,  that hinge upon his characters not being in constant touch with each other.  Of course he could have Kim dropping her purse that had the phone in it, forgetting George’s temporary cell number, etc.  Too busy.  How are his people supposed to act as free agents if they’re never actually on their own, unless he arbitrarily confiscates their gizmos?  (And let it be said, for a story adapted from a Bond film treatment, this novel is almost entirely bereft of gizmos–there was supposedly going to be an exploding boomerang in the Australian section of the film, which sounds to me like Westlake poking sly fun at that entire convention).

So when George comes back to the cafe, he finds Kim gone.  And he finds Curtis’s goons waiting for him.  They say they have Kim, and he has no reason to doubt them.  They say innocent people will get hurt if they have to start shooting, and he believes that too.  And Westlake reworked this scene for Flashfire, as Greg Tulonen pointed out some time back in the comments section here–Parker getting forced into a car by two men hired to kill him.  No hostages, no threats to innocent passersby–that wouldn’t work where Parker is concerned.  But it’s the same scene, under all the variations.   Manville goes quietly, just as Parker does–and all the while, he’s waiting, watching for an opportunity to turn the tables.  (Big difference is, he’s in a Bond story, so these guys aren’t here to kill him–yet.)

And this tells us something–Manville is, on the surface, a polite peaceable man, who has never been involved in any kind of violence before.  And now that he’s suddenly up to his well-tanned neck in violence, he’s learned he has a natural talent for it–that he keeps his cool under pressure, as he did on the yacht.  Pallifer complains, first to  Manville and then to Curtis, that Manville isn’t what he was told he’d be.  Curtis, always discomfited when people surprise him, says maybe George has some kind of Green Beret training he didn’t know about.  No, that’s not it.  Curtis and his men have awakened a sleeping wolf.  Less ruthless, but much smarter.

So he goes with them for a very long drive, to Curtis’s station (Australian for ranch), way out in the Outback, in cattle country,  not too far from some hamlet called Murra Murra.  (The second image up top is purportedly from there–KeepGuard is some kind of remote viewing system, so you can watch your cows grazing from the comfort of home–hey, beats network primetime).

Curtis is waiting for him there.  Well, of course he is.  This is the portion of the story where Bond is an unwilling guest of his nemesis.  In Goldfinger, he’s also on a farm, this one in Kentucky, while Goldfinger tries to figure out how much Bond knows about Operation Grandslam–absolutely nothing but its name–by the time he leaves he knows everything and has Pussy Galore working for his side.

You see how problematic this part of the formula is, and yet how useful to struggling screenwriters.  Goldfinger has every intention of killing his guest, but has to bask on the glow of Bond’s admiration for his brilliant plan first.  In the words of the immortal Ernst Stavro Blofeld–

But then he most frustratingly fails to follow his own advice later in the picture, once Bond is his guest. The latest Blofeld fared no better.  My only explanation is that these people all went to elite finishing schools, where host etiquette was strongly emphasized.  You can kill your guest, but you must serve dinner and cocktails first.  Curtis never went to any finishing schools, but he’s still somehow absorbed a portion of this ethos.

Curtis went so far as to make introductions: “George Manville, may I introduce Albert and Helen Farrelly, they run Kennison for me, and Cindy Peters, an old friend visiting for the weekend. George,” he told the others, “is a brilliant engineer, absolutely brilliant. We’ve been working together for a year and a half now, haven’t we, George?”

“About that,” Manville agreed. Not so long ago, he wanted to say, while everybody exchanged friendly greetings, you were sending people to kill me, then to kidnap me, imprison me. Has one of us lost his mind? But dinner party politeness was just too strong a force; he couldn’t say a word.

Curtis even rubbed it in, saying, “It’s too bad your friend Kim couldn’t be with you, George, we’d make an even number. Well, we’ll do what we can. I’ll be father at the head of the table here, George, you take that place there on the right, Helen, you between George and me, Cindy, you on my left, and Albert, if you’d sit across from George?”

Everybody did, and Manville saw Curtis extend his foot toward what must be a call button in the floor, because almost immediately two servers in the tan pantsuits came out with plates of crisp green salad.

Manville said to Helen, on his left, “Kennison?” Surprised, she said, “The station. This place, you’d call it a ranch. And the house. This is Kennison. You didn’t know that?”

“I came here unexpectedly,” Manville said.

Wine was being poured. Around the server’s arm, Curtis said to Manville, “Kennison’s a great place, George, I wish I could be here more often myself. I’ll show you around, I think you’ll be surprised and pleased.”

“I’m already surprised,” Manville told him, and Curtis laughed.

When the five glasses had been filled with an Australian white wine, a chardonnay, Curtis proposed a toast. “To the good life, in a good place, to getting it and keeping it.”

They all drank to Curtis’s toast, Manville last and only a sip. It was a good clean wine, nicely cold. He would have to be alert not to drink too much of it.

So how to rationalize this?  First of all, Curtis’s station is very isolated, well out in the bush.  It covers thousands of acres, and the road leading out is poorly marked, and constantly blocked by cattle.  Manville would have to trek many long dusty miles to get anywhere. They’d track him down and finish him before he could do anything meaningful.

Curtis has this nice older couple running the place for him, extremely loyal to him, willfully in the dark about the man who has given them an idyllic lifestyle.  They wouldn’t kill for him, and he’d never ask them to, but neither will they take the word of a man who has been written up in the papers as having spied on their employer, and Manville wouldn’t ask them to do that either (because he can see it’s pointless).  Pallifer would snuff Manville out like a disposable lighter, and not even ask for a bonus.  So there’s that.

Secondly, Curtis promises Manville that if he’ll cooperate and stay put for the moment, give his parole, as they used to say,  Curtis will squash the whole thing about his being a corporate spy, all a big misunderstanding–he actually does this (for his own purposes).

He also says he’ll call off the hit on Kim Baldur.  That he doesn’t do, but what neither of them knows yet is that not long after she escaped Curtis’s goons, Kim ran into Jerry Diedrich and Luther Rickendorf (Jerry suspected Kim might be alive, but he still fainted when he saw her–excitable sort).

They’ve gone to the Australian police, who are skeptical, but interested.  They’ve also talked to Captain Zhang, who subsequently committed suicide, unable to reconcile his conflicting loyalties–to his employer, to his family, and to common decency.  His suicide note to his wife was on the brief and perfunctory side.  So was his subplot.

And the moral, wasted on Curtis, is that people don’t necessarily stay the way they were when you last saw them. He keeps making this mistake over and over. Can’t seem to fathom that people don’t just freeze in place when he walks out of the room, only to come back to life when he walks back in.

So contrived as this all may be, it’s contrived in character, which is what Westlake is going for here.  This way, Curtis figures he can just keep Manville quiet, make use of his technical expertise, hedge his bets in case the authorities come calling, and let Pallifer and Manville work out their differences once the Hong Kong business is attended to. As far as he’s concerned, Manville was dead the moment he told Curtis he wouldn’t help cover up Kim’s murder, just as Kim was dead the moment he decided her murder would be useful to him.   That both of them are still alive for the moment is a minor detail.  He’s already proven he can discredit anything they say about him by manipulating the press, making counter-allegations.

(Also, Curtis doesn’t have a tank full of pet piranhas to feed unwanted guests to.  Though I suppose crocodiles could have worked.  Or Platypuses.  [Platypi?]  There is, incidentally, no reference at all to exotic wildlife in this part of the book, not even one kangaroo hopping by.  I don’t know if this is because Westlake never saw much in the way of wildlife when he was there, or learned that there wasn’t much wildlife in that part of the country, or decided it was too much of a cliche, or he wasn’t there at all and didn’t want to risk mentioning the wrong critters.)

This part of the book is where Manville gets to really size Curtis up.  On his home turf, Curtis lets his guard down a bit, talks about his first marriage–the only one that mattered to him–and how his wife Isabel, who came from the family who started the company he took over, died of cancer as soon as they’d taken control.  The woman Curtis is sleeping with at the present time expresses sympathy–she’d never known.

Manville noticed, but thought that Cindy did not, that his smile to her was patronizing, that it said, thank you for your sympathy, but you’re too shallow to know what I really went through. He holds himself aloof from the human race, Manville thought, and that’s why he can be so dangerous.

(What was it Stalin reportedly said, about his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze?–“This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.”  None too warm to start with, one suspects.  He had several of her close relations killed during a purge later on.  Well, that’s one way to deal with in-laws.)

Something else we learn in this brief episode, before Curtis heads back to Singapore–the name of the company he and his first wife took over from her family.  It had been started by her grandfather, a hundred years earlier, and given a somewhat odd name–

Manville said, “She was Chinese?”

“No, a Brit,” Curtis said. “Her background was. Her grandfather came out, started a construction company on the island, over a hundred years ago. Called it Hoklo Construction, which was a joke, because the Hoklo were 17th-century pirates from China that settled in Hong Kong and then assimilated and disappeared, so anybody could be Hoklo. Anybody could be a pirate, you see?”

Manville said, “It’s an interesting point.”

“One Isabel’s grandfather always kept in mind,” Curtis said, “as should have his successors. Anyway, the grandfather built the business, and went back to England to marry, and had children, and his first two sons took over the business, and Isabel was a daughter of the second son. I was just a roustabout from Oklahoma, my father was in construction but in a small way, little tract houses in developments in the dirt around Tulsa, not like Hoklo. They were big, always, from the beginning, building the big godowns the Chinese used for waterfront warehouses, putting up office buildings, apartment houses. I was always interested in travel, seeing something other than the tan dirt of Tulsa, and when I got to Hong Kong I took a job for a while with Hoklo, and met Isabel, and that’s where it all started.”

Manville said, “You went into the firm.”

“I became the firm,” Curtis said, and his voice was harsh again, but then it softened as he said, “The difference between the first generation and the third, you see, the first generation has to work for it, and the second generation at least gets to see their parents work for it, but the third generation gets it handed to them on a plate, with no idea there’s any work involved. Isabel’s brother and two of her cousins were supposed to take over the company, and it would have been like having the company taken over by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

“You took it away from them.”

Curtis smiled. If tigers smiled, it would look like that. “I showed them what it was like to be in a fight,” he said.

Manville thinks to himself, around this time, that Richard Curtis is at his most dangerous when he seems to be most sane.  He is under no illusions about his chances of longterm survival, nor does he necessarily believe Curtis’s assurances about not going after Kim.  He knows that his soliton technique might be used to do something horrible.  But he agrees to stay put for the next two weeks.  And he watches.  And waits.  And nothing more of consequence happens with him until Part Three.

Curtis has to deal with official questions about Kim’s accusations, and to explain away Captain Zhang’s suicide–but now he can say that Manville is working with him again, that the charges of corporate espionage were just a misunderstanding, and would that be happening if he’d tried to have him and Ms. Baldur killed?  Without the slightest trace of remorse, he suggests the late Captain Zhang was using Curtis’s yacht to smuggle drugs, possibly people.

He talks to Brevizin, and to Australian police inspector, Tony Fairchild, playing both men like a harp–neither needs to believe him a saint, and he makes no pretense of being one.  He pulls a little dodge with the latter, where Pallifer pretends to be Manville, talking to Fairchild from Singapore (his secretary there patches Pallifer in from Australia).  Fairchild finds him rather unpleasant, hearing the unmistakable note of caustic misogyny when ‘Manville’ refers to Kim (who now doesn’t know what to believe about her newly-minted lover, suddenly gone over to the other side again–and of course Fairchild doesn’t think of having her listen in to confirm if this really is Manville).

Fairchild is another of Westlake’s professional, smart, decent, but somehow unprepossessing police officers (there’s three of them in this one book alone).   He can tell something’s wrong, he’s got no love for the moneyed classes, but he lets himself be gulled by Curtis, as does Brevizin, who is certainly no fool, and who has heard rumors of Curtis’s financial difficulties.  Curtis gives them an alternative explanation for his behavior, and they buy into it.  Because the alternative, you see, would be to believe one of the richest men on earth is a supervillain who would stop at nothing to pull off some evil plan.  I mean, what is this, a James Bond story?

Safely on his way back to Singapore, to start putting the finishing touches on his evil plan, Curtis (who gave up his private jet to economize, first class is more than cushy enough for him), realizes he’s on the same plane as his crazed nemesis Jerry Diedrich, Diedrich’s faithful Teutonic companion, Luther Rickendorf, and the seemingly unkillable Kim Baldur.  They don’t see him.  But he sees trouble.  He’s got to do something about them.

Pallifer is busy keeping watch on Manville.  He needs a man in Singapore.  Someone who couldn’t easily be connected to him. Someone desperate enough to carry out dubiously legal orders.  Someone he can trust to do an odd job or three.  He consults his mental rolodex.  He picks up the in-flight phone.  End Part Two.

There’s an arguable plot hole here, that only gets partly addressed.  Curtis now knows Kim Baldur isn’t in Australia anymore.  Curtis knows that as far as Pallifer is concerned, he’s still supposed to locate and dispatch her at the earliest opportunity (without letting Manville know about it).  Pallifer is one of the two characters I mentioned who has a cellphone, and he’s mainly going to be at Curtis’s ranch.

At no time does Curtis think it might be a good idea to tell Pallifer to forget about Kim Baldur, focus on George Manville entirely.  And this is going to turn out to be the opening Manville has been watching for, which Curtis will have cause to rue.  Leaving all that aside, it’s damned sloppy–like forgetting to call your dogs off when the day’s hunt is over.

But, you could argue, it’s just exactly the kind of sloppiness a man like Curtis would often be guilty of.  That he keeps forgetting that people don’t just stay where you left them, frozen in place, waiting for you to walk back into the room.  Having, in his mind, dealt with his problems in Australia, he puts them out of his mind entirely, and focuses on his problems in the Chinese-speaking world.

The problem with somebody to whom other people aren’t quite real is that he’s never really going to understand other people–particularly the ones who can’t be bought, or intimidated.  It causes him to make all kinds of jaw-dropping errors in judgment.  But it’s also what makes him so dangerous.  When he seems most sane.

Anyway, we can talk more about this next time.  About my opening quote up top–that’s another little oddity–and another hint as to who really wrote this novel that was going to be published under a pseudonym.

There is, you should know, no Australian crime novel called Payback, nor is there an author of such novels going by the name Gary Driver.  There is, as you already know, a 1999 American crime movie called Payback (in production when Westlake would have written this), starring a certain slightly deranged Australian actor, based on a 1962 novel credited to Richard Stark.

So best explanation I can think of (see the comments section for a better one) is that Stark put that reference in there, so we should know who’s instructing Manville how to survive what’s coming.   And Manville better pay close attention to Stark’s tutelage.  Wouldn’t hurt us any, either.  I’m just saying.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake screenplays, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Forever and a Death

Until recently, when he visualized that destruction, the image in Curtis’s mind of the toppling skyscrapers was immediately supplanted by the image of the ancient bastards in Beijing, the shock and the fear on those age-lined pig-faces when they heard the news: someone has killed your golden goose. The image of those faces had been enough for him, could bring him a smile every time he thought of it.

But just in the last few days, he’d found himself, not willingly, thinking about the people inside the buildings. There would be no warning, merely a low rumble in the earth and then the buildings would go over like chainsawed trees. No escape.

Those people in the buildings weren’t his enemies. But he wasn’t going to worry about them. They’d made their choice when they’d decided to stay, after the bastards from the mainland took over. They could have gone away, almost every one of them could have gone away. They could have gone to Macao, or Malaysia; many could have gone to Singapore (as Curtis had), or Canada, or a dozen other places in the world. But they chose to stay, so what happened was on their own heads.

Still, now that he was thinking about it, it seemed to him, for a number of reasons, he would be better to make it happen at night. He’d always visualized it in daylight, in bright sun, the gleaming glass buildings as they went over, but that wasn’t necessary. He certainly wouldn’t be there to see it.

At night, it would be easier to make the collections.

It’s been months since this book,  the last ‘new’ novel we’ll ever see from Westlake, was released.  Time for me to review it properly, as so few of his novels ever have been, which is why this blog exists.  To discuss, and in some detail, character, motivation, subtext, influences, style.  And plot.  If you read this whole review, you’re going to know the whole story. Shall we proceed?  Open your sealed dossiers, and let the debriefing begin. (Oh get your minds out of the gutter, it isn’t that whole a story).

There have, to be sure, been many reviews out there–you can see quotes from them on Amazon, including a blurb plucked from my own non-review review of some months back (mildly disorienting for me to read there, but I’ll take it).  Generally sketchy, sometimes insightful, mainly positive.  Not all from Westlake fans, either.

Reader reviews have been more mixed.  The general gist seems to be “Not bad, but I thought this was a Bond novel.  Where’s Bond?”  He ain’t here.  Not out there in reality, either.  That’s the point of the book, I argued back then (in my blurb), and I stick to that.

There are real villains, in the real world, with real evil plans, and the very real power to carry them out, and they do.  There is, however, no handsome heroic multi-talented individual who can more or less single-handedly foil these villains.  That kind of story is fun to read, and to watch, but it’s not real, even if you cut out the cloak and dagger stuff. (Edward Snowden?  Remind me who’s paying his rent now?  More of an unwitting henchman.  With Assange, you can cut out the unwitting part.)

Now of course Bond was never entirely on his own, he always had allies, collaborators, an entire government apparatus behind him, but the Fleming novels, and the films inspired by them, are still celebrations of rugged individualism, even as they depict an organization man, someone of whom it can honestly be said (to borrow a phrase from a much better written spy series) They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.

Spies are real, no question about that.  They’re all around us, much more than we realize.  And their work is typically less glamorous and exciting than that of a bike messenger for a Wall St. firm.   More dangerous, perhaps, but that depends on where they’re doing it, and when.  They get information.  They convey it to their paymasters.  There may be a certain limited measure of kiss-kissing and bang-banging, but not much, if they’re doing the job right.  Flash does not pay in their business.

But it’s what you’re selling with a Bond novel, a flight of pure fancy, which this book serves as a more earthbound commentary upon.  It’s written in a genre that might roughly be slotted as ‘suspense/thriller’–it’s no kind of spy novel.  There are no spies in it (well, there is one–a minor character, and an amateur–you know what tends to happen to them in Westlake novels).  No government espionage agency, real or imaginary, is involved, or even referred to.

This was a deliberate choice.  Westlake could not legally publish a novel with James Bond  as the protagonist, but let’s remember that the people who control the 007 franchise don’t own the idea of manly secret agents battling baddies while bedding babes, which Ian Fleming did not invent, and couldn’t have copyrighted if he had.  Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and Austin Powers all attest to this precise type of story being in the public domain.

This could easily have been a novel about some freelance tough guy getting sucked into a Bondian scenario–Westlake had done that before, though more often as Richard Stark–Parker had been a sort of spy in The Handle, if without much conviction (that book gets a bit of a shout-out here).  Alan Grofield had been dragooned into the role of secret agent  in The Blackbird.  Under his own name, Westlake had sent up the entire genre with The Spy in the Ointment.

These are all more economical, less ambitious books than the one we’re looking at, and much better ones, written in his two strongest authorial voices.  For us to properly evaluate this book, we have to accept he wanted to try a new voice, a new approach, incorporating elements of what he’d done before into new settings, with characters you’d never want to try and build a series of books around, who are much more mundane and ordinary than characters in this type of story tend to be.  Because they’re standing in for us.

Westlake wanted both his villain and those opposing him to be unaffiliated, and he also wanted them to be newbs, unaccustomed to their roles, though each has applicable skills, if they can figure out how to apply them.  There are cops involved, and robbers, but mainly ancillary.  The characters who carry the action are a commercial developer, an engineer, a smuggler, a construction foreman, and three environmental activists of radically different backgrounds.  This is not to say they are the only characters who matter, because the point of the book is that everybody matters.  Everybody makes a difference.  For better or worse.  Sometimes both.

This is a story about a man attempting to murder an entire city, for revenge and profit, a few dangerous pawns who assist him for reasons of their own, and a few decent brave flawed individuals, who come to realize by degrees what he’s attempting, and try to stop him.  It’s a detective novel, as much as anything else.  But written quite frequently from the criminal’s POV–a Westlake specialty.  So also a heist novel. As are some of the Bond stories, most notably Goldfinger, probably the one Westlake was most familiar with, since he tried his own take on a military base heist in The Green Eagle Score, which I’d take over all the Ian Fleming books ever written, with the pastiches thrown in.

To sum up how all this happened, for those arriving late, Westlake was tasked with writing a story treatment for the Bond film that was going to follow Goldeneye, assuming Goldeneye wasn’t a flop.  He asked Jeff Kleeman to send him videocopies of some of the Bond films, making it clear he hadn’t seen them all.  Unknown which if any of the Fleming books he’d read.

I don’t know if one of the films he viewed in preparation was A View To A Kill, which I very much doubt Westlake went to see when it came out, and had not been greeted with much enthusiasm at the time.  Christopher Walken’s diabolic Zorin, a giggling over-the-top Nazi science project of a man, has an idea quite similar to that of the baddie in Westlake’s original treatment, relating to Silicon Valley (an idea that could not possibly work in reality, for reasons Westlake would have immediately perceived, but what else is new in Bond-town?)

Since Zorin’s plan was self-evidently inspired by Goldfinger, maybe Westlake never saw the later film at all, and was just extrapolating along comparable lines?  Westlake liked to avoid obvious repetition when possible. (But then, isn’t obvious repetition part and parcel of this franchise?)

Greg Tulonen, Phil P., and Jeff Kleeman (in his engagingly informative afterword to this book), have all helped us better understand how this project came to pass, and why Westlake’s treatment ultimately went nowhere, became something else, written by somebody else, with just a few of Westlake’s ideas marginally present.

He then felt moved to write a very long novel (610 pages in the original manuscript) that took the core ideas from his treatment and made a new story out of them, which met with a muted response from people whose opinions he valued, so the book was put aside, while still in early draft form.

But we’ve covered all that already.  What we’re looking at is the book that has now been published, boiled down to a more manageable length by Charles Ardai.  And our mission, should we choose to accept it (I know, wrong franchise), is deciding whether we can view it as any kind of success on its own terms, or simply an oddity, a forgotten relic from the career of a storied storyteller.

Our mission is complicated by the fact that the book was never properly finished.  This posthumously edited version differs in many respects from what we’d be reading  if Westlake had gotten it published in his lifetime.  There would have been more drafts, editorial notes, sharpening of character, tightening of story, tweaking of language.  All Ardai could do was what Abby Westlake reportedly suggested her husband do back then, namely that he ‘cut a hundred pages of hemming and hawing.’  (That’s how Westlake himself put it, perhaps Abby was more diplomatic.)

It wouldn’t rank among his best books, no matter how long he worked on it, because this type of material was never his strongest suit, and it was a bit late in the day for such a radical reinvention.  I wouldn’t call it one of his worst books, because there is a sense of energy and purpose to it, for all the missteps and rough patches–much better than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, or Gangway!, both of which had comparable Tinseltown origins.  Not sure I’d call it a Westlake, either.

As I said, when I wrote about it some months ago, it strikes me as being written more in the style of Timothy J. Culver, the portion of Westlake’s psyche that wrote very long ‘airport’ novels of intrigue and adventure, with humor on the down-low.  Only Ex Officio was ever published under Culver’s name, and Westlake wrote disparagingly of this alter ego, but Kahawa, to a lesser extent, is written in that mode, as is Humans.  None of these books were big sellers, though Kahawa was critically well-regarded, has a loyal following to this day, and is a much better book than Forever And a Death.

Westlake reportedly wanted this one published under a feminine nom de plume, something Knox Burger, his agent of the time, found disconcerting.  It’s not clear why he was so bothered, since Westlake’s very successful friend, Lawrence Block, has written on and off as Jill Emerson for over half a century now.  Maybe it was something else about the name that bothered Mr. Burger, who would be thinking about how this book would impact the Westlake ‘brand’.  (And of course no matter what name it was published under, it would be outed as his handiwork, sooner or later–plenty of hints for the sharp-eyed).

Westlake had, interestingly, published four detective novels under the name Samuel Holt–same name as the protagonist/narrator of that series–and Burger specifically cites the Holt novels in his response to Westlake, not at all in a complimentary fashion.  Was his suggested pseudonym here also the name of a character from this book?  Somebody out there must know, but I don’t.

I do know I better start the synopsis–this is a good-sized novel, divided into four parts, each primarily set in a different location, with many a twist and turn along the way, involving at least 13 POV characters (the precise number is debatable).  I don’t intend to let this turn into a three or four parter, as I have in the case with shorter books with more fine detail work.

My intent is to make Part 1 about Parts One and Two, and Part 2 will be devoted to Parts Three and Four.  For all the POV characters in this book, there is one who looms above all the others.  And he’s not the hero.   But in his mind, he’s the–

ONE:

He was consumed with so much anger, so much hatred, that he found it hard to be around other people for very long.  The snarl beneath the surface kept wanting to break through.

And of course, everybody knew about it, which only made things worse. Everybody knew they’d driven Richard Curtis out of Hong Kong, those mainland bastards, once they’d taken over. Everybody knew they’d cheated him, and robbed him, and driven him out of his home, his industry, his life. Everybody knew Richard Curtis’s great humiliation. But what nobody knew was that the game wasn’t over.

This story begins and ends with Richard Curtis–a name I feel confident in saying is derived from Westlake’s two hardest-boiled pseudonyms–Richard Stark and Curt Clark. Because Richard Stark wrote The Score, the premise of which hangs upon a man with a blood vendetta against the town that exiled him, and is using the professional heist men he’s working with, Parker included, to get his revenge.

Curt Clark wrote Anarchaos, a science fiction noir about a man possessed by rage against society, who sets out to learn if an entire planet of criminals murdered his brother, and pass sentence if it has.

Curtis’ ambitions lie somewhere between those two poles.  As does his morality, if he can be said to have any.  His identity crisis lies in the fact that in order to try and regain the person he used to be, he’s got to become what he never was before–a killer.  And we should remember, Westlake wrote this not long after he wrote The Ax.  But all these books I mention were much more focused.

This story is going to be more divided in its attentions, and its sympathies.  A strength and a weakness. A challenging story to write, all the more since it’s using a borrowed template that needs to be subtly altered to get Westlake’s points across–Curtis is a rationalized Bond villain, with a rationalized Bond villain scheme, rationalized murderous henchmen with inner lives of their own, and more believable motivations than any villain I can think of from the Fleming novels, or the many films based on them.

The people who come to oppose him are, in a sense, a collective 007, standing in for we the audience.  Also rationalized, and fallible as all hell, forced willy-nilly into the role of hero, finding it not nearly as much fun as the movies make it seem.  Fascinating concept.  Incredibly difficult to execute properly.

We see a helicopter coming in to land, on Curtis’s yacht, at sea, off the coast of a small abandoned atoll, a former Japanese military base, under the territorial authority of Australia.  Curtis is on that helicopter.  He’s come to see a dream made real.  Not necessarily a pleasant dream.

Working with a brilliant young engineer, Richard Manville, Curtis intends to use a soliton wave, created by carefully set explosives, to turn the entire island to mud in a matter of minutes.  Thus creating a blank slate upon which he can build a luxury casino resort, his very own Cockaigne, though the name is never mentioned–Westlake drawing a sly subtextual parallel between Curtis and his earlier attempt at a Bond-style villain, Baron Wolfgang Friedrich Kastelbern von Altstein, who likewise made a paradise of vice out of a desert isle.

Though Curtis is genuinely interested in this project, its potential for long-term profit, what he’s allowed no one to know is how desperately he requires a massive influx of capital, that no legitimate enterprise could ever yield him in time.  As matters stand, each of his partners in the venture thinks Curtis has secretly sold him/her a bigger share than the others, and Curtis’s own share is accordingly diminished.  Scratch a capitalist, find a con artist.

He was a billionaire developer in Hong Kong, until the mainland Chinese government took over there, and forced him out, helping themselves to most of his assets in the process.  This wholly predictable turn of events hurt him far worse than it should have–he was too stubborn and self-willed to cut his losses and relocate to Shanghai.  A tiger fighting a dragon, doomed from the start.  He only surrendered to the inevitable once he had no other choice, and too much damage had been done for his fortunes to recover.

Richard Curtis, like many if not most people at the pinnacle of the One Percent, can’t abide any form of authority over him–not even one of the world’s most powerful and autocratic nations.  Nor can he ever forgive a slight–let alone a defeat.  There is zero chance of his dying in poverty, very little of his ever paying for his chicanery with prison time.  That’s not the point.  His identity is based on being a billionaire developer, and a billionaire developer he must remain.  No matter what.

In the eyes of the world, he’s still all of that, more or less self-made (though he more or less stole his company from the children of those who created it, marrying one of them in the process).  He began as nothing more than an oil-rig worker out of Oklahoma, son of a fly-by-night contractor.  He is decidedly not an entitled strutting self-promoting media-driven fraud like Trump, though comparisons are there to be made, if you like–most notably in the way he’s over-leveraged himself, owes far more than he owns, and is no more than a few years away from ruin, if he can’t make the kind of score that no one would ever imagine him capable of pulling off.  (Yes, there are parallels, I just said so.)

He’s no stranger to cutting legal and ethical corners, never had any qualms over doing so–but now he’s decided to commit mass murder, apolitical terrorism on a scale that would dwarf 9/11 (which hadn’t happened at the time this was written, and please note, a wealthy engineer was behind that as well).  All this in order to cover outright theft, of the gold reserves lying in underground vaults there.

But even more important to him, this would deal a vicious blow to the ‘ancient bastards’ in Beijing (another subtextual cross-reference, this time to Humans)–and by extension, the entire world economy.  Perhaps millions of lives will end by his hand, billions more will be impacted.  What Richard Curtis can’t control, he destroys.

Does he care?  Only to the extent that it changes the way he looks at himself.  He tells himself that he’ll do it at night, to minimize the number of people present in the business district of Hong Kong, built mainly on landfill, that will crumble the same way as the fragile atoll to the soliton’s kiss.  But this is not compassion, or guilt, and he has no capacity for shame.  He’s just not yet ready to fully accept what he’s in the process of becoming.

In the meantime, others are going through transitions of their own.  As Curtis and Manville prepare their experiment from Curtis’s palatial yacht (Manville has no inkling of what further use Curtis has for his idea), a ship from the environmental group Planetwatch approaches.  An expedition led by Jerry Diedrich, who has a long-held mysterious vendetta against Curtis, and has plagued him in the past.  He has learned about the soliton through private channels, and is claiming it will damage the Great Barrier Reef.  His public statements don’t match his personal motives. Curtis is his own personal Great White Whale, and the reef is just an excuse to throw harpoons at the blowhard’s blowhole.

Aboard the ship with him are various other activists, including Diedrich’s cool enigmatic German-born lover, Luther Rickendorf, made of sterner stuff than the temperamental Diedrich, who won’t come into his own until later in the book.

More important to this part of the story is twenty-three year old Kim Baldur, child of the middle class, American as they come, both a good and a bad thing (and when is it ever not?)  The last of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, and perhaps the best of them.  Brave, impulsive, naive, idealistic, decent, far too trusting for her own good.  And like most kids, convinced of her own immortality.

(I finally head-cast her as Michelle Williams.  A bit too seasoned to play Kim now–at least the girl she is when we meet her.  The woman Kim is by the end, Williams could still play admirably.)

Manville didn’t put in a fail safe device, so once the countdown has started, it can’t be stopped.  Diedrich refuses to believe this.  Kim, a trained diver with a Norse surname, takes it upon herself to be the sacrificial offering, believing as her mythic namesake did, that nothing in nature could ever harm her.

Without asking anyone’s leave, she launches herself into the ocean, swims for the island, believing this will force them to stop the explosions she has been told will irreparably damage one of the world’s natural wonders. But even the most ardent beliefs can’t change the facts, and Curtis probably wouldn’t give the order if he could.  By the time Kim and everyone else realizes what’s happening–

At first, the sea seemed to shrink, to turn a darker gray, as though it had suddenly grown cold, with goosebumps.  There was a silence then, a pregnant silence, like the cottony absence of sound just before a thunderstorm.  The island seemed to rise slightly from the sea, the concrete collar of its retaining wall standing out crisp and clear, every flaw and hollow in the length of it as vivid as if done in an etching.

Then a ripple appeared, faint at first, and rolled outward from the island, all around, just beneath the surface, like a representation of radio waves.  With the ripple came a muttering, a grumbling, as though boulders sheathed in wool were being rolled together in some deep cave.  And the ripple came outward, outward, not slacking, not losing power, with more ripples emerging behind it.

Planetwatch III, in too close, nearly capsizes in the backswell, but her captain keeps her afloat.  Nobody witnessing any of this believes there’s the slightest chance Kim survived. Manville is deeply troubled, feeling he was responsible for not foreseeing such an eventuality.  Diedrich, a good man for all his bombast, is likewise asking himself if he is responsible for this child’s death.

Curtis, to whom other people are assets or liabilities, sees a strategic opening.  If he can hang the death of this suicidal fool on Diedrich, he can tie the gadfly up in the Australian courts during the coming critical weeks–otherwise Diedrich might well appear in Hong Kong, since he clearly has a well-placed mole in Curtis’s company.  Curtis can’t believe his good fortune.

Not so lucky as he thought.  His men, doing the obligatory search for what they assume will be a corpse, find Kim floating unconscious off the coast of the reformed island.  There’s a faint pulse in her throat.  She’s brought on board, examined by the yacht’s skipper, Captain Zhang, who has some basic medical training.  He happily tells a disappointed Curtis that her injuries are not fatal.

The startled captain is then informed by his employer that he is mistaken–Kim Baldur will never wake again.  If necessary, Zhang must make sure of that. Believing without question that his none-too-subtle wishes will be carried out, since Zhang is a family man, and depends on Curtis for his present comfortable livelihood, Curtis proceeds to inform his business partners on the yacht, as well as Manville, that the girl died without ever regaining consciousness.

This is a mistake he will come to regret, leading to a cascade of subsidiary mistakes that will force him to go further and further out of his comfort zone, until his criminal enterprise is no longer a dry abstraction to him.  Diedrich was far less of a threat than the enemies Curtis is going to make by trying to neutralize all potential opposition–he has no suspicion that Curtis is an aspiring city-killer, nor was he likely to have found out on his own.  But his constant harassment got under Curtis’s skin.

Westlake had long made clear his contempt for people who make murder the answer to everything.  It is as much a logical as a moral disdain. Killing creates more complications than it resolves.  It’s the most unpredictable and dangerous tool in the kit.  To be used only when no other option exists (or where no law worth taking seriously exists).  If it had to be done, Curtis should have done it  himself.  But that’s a step he’s not prepared to take yet.  And he’s spent years ordering other people to do his dirty work for him.  Old habits.

Curtis has a sort of mad ingenuity, when he’s shouldering aside obstacles in his path, but a one-track mind is ill-suited to over-complex plans.  It was, after all, an engineer named Kelly Johnson who came up with the KISS principle.  (And not Gene Simmons, oddly enough.) You can find many over-focused megalomaniacs in Bond novels and films, making the same mistakes, but what you rarely find there is the carefully crafted inner monologues that bring us to better understand this monster, invite us into his confidence.

And we have to be brought into his confidence.  Because Curtis is never, at any time, going to confide the full details of his plans for Hong Kong to anyone, even his closest associates, who think they’re just going to steal a lot of gold, kill a relatively small number of people, and destroy a few city blocks to hide the evidence of their crime.  He knows they lack the imagination to encompass something on the scale of what he intends to do.  He uses everyone, trusts absolutely no one.

This is a huge break with both the Bond novels and films, and really with most popular fiction involving megalomaniacs and master plans and henchmen.  It was a leitmotif in the Bond novels all the way back to Moonraker, with innumerable antecedents, and the movies (lacking as they do a narrator who can put us in the villain’s head) magnified it to the point where anyone writing a Bond flick now has to struggle with a way to justify it.

(I’m curious as to how Westlake would have handled that hoary shibboleth, had his movie been made.  It should be said, Bond does at times figure out what the plan is without the aid of egocentric villains, but that often requires him to know far more than he ought to, another problem, that Fleming sort of danced his way around.)

It’s such a well-established trope for the villain to blab his evil plan to the hero that endless parodies have mocked this self-destructive compulsion. that is pretty much entirely an invention of desperate storytellers seeking plot exposition (pretty sure Hitler never phoned Churchill to brag about his V2 rockets).  Curtis makes a lot of mistakes, but never that one.  Well–hardly ever.  Westlake makes a sly curtsey to this tradition in Part One.

Captain Zhang is tormented with guilt and indecision, questioning whether he is the good man he always thought of himself as being–but doesn’t a good man protect his family from privation?  He delays as much as he can, hoping Curtis will change his mind, and the delay proves fatal to Curtis’s fatal plans for Kim.

Before Zhang does something that can’t be undone, Manville goes to Curtis and tells him he went to apologize to Kim’s corpse for not putting in the fail-safe (he can be almost annoyingly conscientious at times), and found a warm sleeping body instead. He knows Kim isn’t dead, but he heard Curtis tell an entire dinner party she was.

He’s figured out why Curtis would want her dead, and he figures all he has to do is tell Curtis he knows and the game will be up.  Curtis will find some other way around his difficulties.  Which is precisely what Curtis should do.  But Curtis hates to abandon any plan of action once he’s settled on it.

So instead he shares–just a little.  A little too much.  He tells Manville he’s really broke.  He tells him about what happened in Hong Kong.  He tells him about Jerry Diedrich’s vendetta.

“But what does that have to do with that girl, down in cabin seven?”

Curtis thought about his answer, then said, “All right.  The fact is, I have a way out of this mess.  I am going to be rich again, a lot richer than I ever was before.  But I have to be extremely careful, George.  What I’m going to do is dangerous, and it’s illegal, and I have to admit it’s going to be destructive.”

“With the soliton,” Manville said.

“I was going to do it without you,” Curtis told him, “and I still can.  I’m not asking you to be at risk, not for a second.  But you could share in the profit.”

He offers Manville ten million dollars.  In gold, if he wants.  All Manville has to do is stay quiet.  Maybe help out with additional calculations, if needed, though Curtis believes he can do that himself.  If he can get Manville to assent to Kim’s death, and by extension to the much larger thing Curtis plans to do with Manville’s idea, he’d be too implicated to speak up later.  Would he tell Manville everything if Manville came in with him?  We never find out.

It’s motivated quite differently from most Bond stories (though maybe just a bit like the film version of Goldfinger, wanting to bask in Bond’s admiration of his ingenuity).  He and Manville have worked together so well, understood each other so perfectly when it came to the project they just completed, that he felt like Manville was, in a sense, his other self, a secret sharer.  But this secret was never meant to be shared, not even in a vague hypothetical form.

Curtis can coldly plot the death of millions, order an underling to snuff out a young girl’s life, but hesitates to do the job himself–Manville is the obverse.  He can kill if he has to, but he’ll be the one doing it, with whatever tools come to hand.  He doesn’t yet know this about himself.  We don’t know our limits until they are tested.  Curtis has found Manville’s  He turns Curtis’s offer down flat.  Knowing as he does that now Curtis will try to have him killed as well.

A mistake had been made. Curtis understood that, now; he’d made a second mistake, while trying to adjust for the first. And both mistakes came down to the same error of judgment. He had gauged George Manville too poorly, dismissing him as just an engineer, which was certainly true, but without stopping to think what that meant.

Yes, Manville was just an engineer, and what that meant was, he had too much integrity and too little imagination. Dangle ten million in front of him—in gold, George, in gold!—and he hasn’t the wit to be seduced by it. First he has to take responsibility for the accident to the diver, a responsibility that was never for a second his, but which he assumed for himself simply because he was the project’s engineer. That unbidden, unasked-for scrupulousness leads him to learn the truth about the diver, which makes him a threat to Richard Curtis, to which Curtis responds by making mistake number two. Not taking time to judge his man, he tries to enlist Manville on his side, and tells him too much.

Before this, Curtis had once or twice wondered, if there were unexpected complications down the line, whether or not he’d be able to recruit Manville, and had guessed that a combination of cupidity and the engineering challenge would turn the trick, but now he knew he’d been wrong. Manville was too blunt-minded to be affected by cupidity, and his engineer’s honor would keep him from being caught up by the engineer’s challenge. If he could balk at finishing off one half-dead idiotic girl, how would he react to what was going to happen to all those people in the buildings?

(Parts of this read very much like a film treatment, don’t they?  The second paragraph in particular.  And we know why, but Westlake usually hid that kind of thing better.  He always worried about explaining his characters’ motivations for doing something necessary to advance the plot that didn’t quite make sense in pragmatic terms–as so much human behavior does not, but fictional humans get held to a higher standard, somehow.  He thought he’d explained Parkers’ motivations too poorly in The Jugger, and sometimes he went to the other extreme, over-explained, to compensate.  The simple truth is, people with deadly secrets yearn to share them.  Not everything we do makes sense. Understatement of the century?)

Curtis pretends to relent.  Manville pretends to believe him.  Curtis flies off in his helicopter.   Captain Zhang takes a lot more time getting the yacht back to Brisbane than he ought to need.  Obviously there’s a plan to get rid of both of Manville and Kim.  Manville starts making plans of his own.

In the meantime, Kim wakes up, finds Manville standing guard over her, and is tended to by an increasingly guilt-ridden and confused Captain Zhang.   Manville tells her the situation they’re in.  But she’s still processing what got her in this situation.  Her Quixotic act, what she experienced when the soliton hit, and the price she has paid.  The price was knowledge.  Immortal no longer.

And once more she remembered her own final thought: Stupid me, now I’ve killed myself. But now she remembered more; she remembered what was inside that thought. Inside the panic and the desperate useless lunge toward the surface, and much more real, had been acceptance.

Resignation, and calm acceptance. She had known, for that second or two seconds, that she was going to die, and she’d accepted the fact, without challenge. She hadn’t even been unhappy.

How easy it is to die, she thought, and realized she’d always assumed it was hard to die, that life pulsed on as determinedly as it could until the end. It was a grim knowledge, that life didn’t mind its own finish, and she felt she had been given that knowledge too soon. I shouldn’t know that yet, she thought, and began to cry. She struggled to keep her breathing regular, to avoid the pain, and tears dribbled from her eyes, and then she opened her mouth and sighed and gave up the struggle and faded from consciousness.

(That didn’t read like a film treatment at all, did it?  More like a memory–or a premonition.  Westlake put a lot of himself into Kim, as well as perhaps some women he’d admired, and she is, in fact, one of his more successful attempts at a female protagonist.  She’ll need to be.)

She’s young and fit, and recovers quickly, but is still too shaky to put on a small boat and escape.  Manville has learned from Zhang that people are coming to kill them.  That’s why it’s taking so long to get to Brisbane.  He hides Kim, but they find her quick enough.  He looks for some weapon to fight them with.  All he can find is a large heavy pepper mill.   He clubs one of the searchers with it, and takes his gun.

He used to do target shooting, for fun.  He’s never shot at a living thing.  He’s never used this kind of gun before.  He has to learn fast.

He stood just out of sight of the people on deck, and studied the thing, a revolver with a bit of bullet showing at the back of each chamber. This small lever here on the side, handy to the right thumb; wouldn’t that be the safety?

The lever moved up and down, and when he first tried the thing it was in the down position. Would the man have done his searching with the safety on or off? There was nothing written on the pistol, no icons, no hint.

I’m an engineer, Manville thought, if I were the one who’d designed this, which way would turn the safety off, which way would turn it on? I would want the more speed when turning it off, would have less reason for speed when switching it on. The quickest simplest motion here is for the thumb to push this lever down, so if I were the engineer on this project I’d design it so the safety was off when the lever was down. The lever’s down.

If I’m wrong, I’ll know it when and if I have to pull the trigger. With luck, I’ll still have time to put my thumb under the lever and push it up. Without luck, I’m dead anyway, because this is nothing I know anything about.

He’s right.  And Curtis’s thugs, led by a cynical American smuggler named Morgan Pallifer, who Curtis has had past dealings with when he needed something illegal done, are wrong when they assume he’s bluffing.  Well, if they weren’t, that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t it?

So Manville and Kim tie up the survivors, and escape in their boat to nearby Brisbane–Kim has recovered enough by now, and they don’t have any choice.  Pallifer tells Manville he’d like to meet him again sometime.  Manville, a killer twice over now, much less disturbed by that fact than he would ever have believed possible, responds “I wouldn’t.”  End Part One.  And I’m well over 6,000 words.  Damn.

Okay.  One has to adapt to unforeseen exigencies.  That’s one of the lessons of this book.  I can’t possibly finish all three parts in the next installment.  So this will be a four-parter.  I’ll try to make the next one brief (it’s my least favorite part of the book).  One complication is that I don’t have four cover images for this book.  I have two–I’ll save the second for part four–it will be worth the wait.  As to the rest, I’ll improvise.

So next time Australia.  Then Singapore.  Then Hong Kong.  If there still is a Hong Kong when this book is finished.  And if there still is a world to read this review by the time I’ve finished it.  Did you hear that Kim Jong Un claims to have a hydrogen bomb he can fit into an ICBM?  Trump has thousands of the blasted things (poor choice of adjectives, that).

Like I said.  No shortage of real Bond villains in this world.  But if you’re waiting for Bond to show up and save you, well kids, you are just shit out of luck.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  And I suppose this qualifies, though since almost nobody knew it existed before now…..)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake screenplays, Ex Officio, Timothy J. Culver

Review: What’s So Funny?, Part 2

“What it is,” Mr. Dortmunder said, “we got a real problem getting at that thing down in that place, like I told you last time.”

“I’m sorry this whole thing got started,” she said.

“Well, so am I, but here we are.” He shrugged. “The thing is,” he said, “your grandfather and the guy working for him, they’re pretty set on getting that thing. Or, I mean, me getting that thing.”

She felt so guilty about this, much worse than mistaking him for a beggar. “Would it help,” she said, “if I talked to my grandfather?”

“Defeatist isn’t gonna get far with him.”

That sounded like her grandfather, all right. Sighing, she said, “I suppose not.”

“But there maybe could be another way,” he said.

Surprised, ready to be pleased, she said, “Oh, really?”

“Only,” he said, “it’s gonna mean I’m gonna have to ask you to help out.”

She stopped, absorbed a couple rabbit punches from the hurrying throng, and said, “Oh, no, Mr. Dortmunder!”

They’d reached the corner now, and he said, “Come on around here, before they knock you out.”

The side street was easier. Walking along it, she said, “You have to understand, Mr. Dortmunder, I’m an attorney. I’m an officer of the court. I can’t be involved in crime.”

“That’s funny,” he said. “I’ve heard of one or two lawyers involved in crime.”

“Criminal lawyers, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

This title begs a rhetorical question–and the answer is “lots, but not the title itself.”  Rather generic, isn’t it?  You’d think Westlake could have stuck a chess reference in there, given the subject matter.  Kings, queens, knights, bishops, castles, gambits, sacrifices, isolated pawns–it’s endless.

The Dortmunder titles (and many other non-Dortmunder titles of Westlake’s) are often popular turns of phrase, turned on their heads.  But I can’t see how that’s the case here.  The word ‘funny’ appears an unremarkable nine times in the book (thank you, Kindle), one of which you can see in the quote up top, but nothing close to this specific phrase ever appears (whereas, in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, the titular phrase serves as a leitmotif, a much-repeated rhetorical question that keeps getting answered in ways that are all too sadly predictable, much like the currently breaking news stories that refuse to stop breaking, no matter how you beg.

If he didn’t want to get all inside-chessball, Your Move would have worked better than What’s So Funny?  Too Many Rooks would work, but is derivative of an earlier story. Every Rook and Plan B?  I’m not saying the title couldn’t be worse, you understand.

This becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that Westlake did not shun chess-themed titling when it came to the internal structure of the book, divided as it is into two roughly equal parts–Knights Errand and Pawn’s Revenge.  Part Two begins with Chapter 33.  (I’ve given up trying to figure out how Westlake decided whether the chapter count should be reset when he started a new section.  Maybe he flipped a coin?  Or the bird?)

Pawn’s Revenge would seem to refer to Dortmunder’s retribution against newly minted private investigator, Johnny Eppick.  This comes, paradoxically, towards the end of Part One, after Dortmunder is told his services won’t be required after all, and he won’t be paid for his time, which predictably triggers his less lethal version of Parker’s reaction to being shortchanged.

He holds Eppick responsible for this indignity, even though it’s Hemlow who is stiffing him.  It was Eppick who put a handle on his back, forced him into a job he never wanted, by finding proof of his involvement in a minor burglary.  Eppick’s the one who has to pay.

A few weeks pass, and then the cocksure retired police detective, enjoying his little private eye fantasy (and hoping to somehow make it pay) finds his own office has been burgled, clearly by a seasoned pro, who defeated his security system with contemptuous ease.  Everything there worth stealing is gone.  The evidence against Dortmunder has mysteriously disappeared (along with the computer it was stored on).  Takes him a while to figure out whodunnit (not much of a sleuth, when you get right down to it).

This is the pawn’s revenge, and I’m not sure I see how what follows in Part Two is revenge of any kind.  Dortmunder is only interested in profit after that.  So I’m even quibbling over the sub-titles.  Enough about the titles, already.  I’ve some of my own to think up, as I finish this one out.  How about we start off with–

Isolated Porn:

This is a subplot that straddles both parts of the book.  In the early stages of planning the heist of the chess set, Dortmunder and Kelp are chauffeured to a Hemlow’s hunting lodge in the wilds of northern Massachusetts, which nobody in his family wants to use anymore, and he figures would be a good place to stow the goods until the heat fades.

They check the place out, and it’s definitely isolated.  What they miss out on is the porn.  See, there’s two kids from Nebraska holed up there, and I use that phrase advisedly.

Brady tried find his place in the Kama Sutra even while Nessa kept on galloping beneath him at cheetah speed, putting him in a position similar to the person who has to rub his belly and pat his forehead at the same time. Got it; that page! Brady bent to his lesson, and Nessa abruptly stopped.

Brady reared back. “Already? No!”

An urgent hand reached around behind her to grasp his hip. “A car!” she cried, her words only half muffled by the pillow.

Now he too heard it, the throaty purr of some expensive automobile rolling up toward the house. Flinging the Kama Sutra away, he leaped off the bed and ran across the large master bedroom toward the front windows, as behind him Nessa scrambled into her clothes.

A long sleek black limousine rolled to a stop at the garage door behind which Brady’s battered Honda Civic sat, as Brady peeked around the curtain. The car doors opened down there and four men climbed out, one at first on hands and knees until two of the others helped him up. The one from the front seat in the chauffeur’s hat would be a chauffeur, and he’s the one who led the others toward the house, taking a key ring from his pocket.

The door wasn’t locked! Racing back across the room, grabbing his jeans from the floor but nothing else, Brady shrilly whispered, “Hide everything!” and tore out to the hall as behind him Nessa, already hiding the Kama Sutra under a pillow, wailed, “Oh, Brady!”

Brady and Nessa are basically ripped straight out of the ‘sleaze’ novels Westlake used to write in the late 50’s/early 60’s, which he’d sent up memorably in Adios, Scheherazade.  Less memorably here, but it’s the same basic story, only without all the deconstruction and soul-searching.  Porno-picaresque.  Brady took one look at Nessa, decided she was all he was ever going to be interested in, and they took off to see the world and each other’s genitals, not necessarily in that order of significance.

Brady, who thinks of himself as a real operator, found a way for them to get into the lodge undetected, and they’ve been living there a while now, raiding the freezer, and hiding whenever somebody shows up to do a bit of maintenance work.  They similarly avoid detection by these new interlopers, and Brady can’t help but listen in with interest, as Kelp (not that Brady ever knows his name) once again shows us he’s a reader.

“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.

Both of the others seemed stymied by that. Johnny finally said, “Was that supposed to be something?”

“Short story by Edgar Allan Poe,” the chipper one said. “Whatsamatta, Johnny, you never went to high school?”

“Yeah, that’s all right,” Johnny said. “What’s this letter? We’re not talking about a letter.”

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

“We’re talking about something where you hide it,” the chipper one told him, “that nobody’s gonna find it. In the story, it’s a letter. And where the guy hid it, turns out, was right there on the dresser, where nobody’s gonna see it because what they’re looking for is something hidden.”

“Crap,” Johnny announced.

The weary one said, “You know, Johnny, maybe not. You got something, you can’t find it, turns out, it’s right in front of you. Happens all the time.”

“Nobody’s gonna look at that set,” Johnny insisted, “and not notice it.”

Set? What the hell is it? Brady was about to go out and ask, unable to stand it any more.

But then the chipper one said, “How about this? We get it. On the way up here, we get cans of spray paint, black enamel and red enamel. We paint ’em all over, this team red, this team black, nobody sees any gold, nobody sees any jewels, it just looks like any chess set. We can leave it right out, like on that big table over there with all that other stuff.”

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

Tiptoeing as fast as the first night he ever sneaked into Nessa’s house back in Numbnuts, Brady made his way to the second floor, where Nessa, tired and sweaty, was just finished bringing all their dirty used stuff up from the kitchen. “Baby!” he whispered, exulting. “We’re in!”

More (heavily euphemized) sex follows (That’s what you paid your thirty-five cents for, right?  Wait, you paid how much?), but here’s the thing about Mr. Westlake and the pseudo-porns he wrote to pay bills.  I’ve read enough of them to know that he was satirizing this shortlived publishing niche even while he was working in it.  And he does it again here, nostalgically, you might say.

Brady is determined to heist the heist, but Nessa thinks these were just three idiots shooting off their mouths, and is getting cabin fever out there at the lodge.  She insists they leave, and then she leaves Brady for another guy, and that guy for yet another guy, and turns out she was the protagonist of the sleaze novel within the heist novel after all, a sexual adventuress sowing her wild oats, a figure we saw more than once in the Westlake sleazes of bygone days, and one last time here.

Which is why she’s back in Part Two, and Brady is seen no more after Part One ends, having returned to the much-despised Numbnuts (there are towns with much weirder names out there in the American hinterlands).  He lands a job at Starbucks, nothing interesting ever happens to him again, and he only occasionally wonders what happened with that purloined chess set.  Not that he’d believe it if you told him.

But would you believe in–

The Wicked Witch of the East Side:

Mrs. W (as she preferred to be called by the staff) was, for instance, on the boards of many of the city’s organizations, as well as a director of a mind-boggling array of corporations. Beyond that, she was a tireless litigant, involved in many more lawsuits than merely those involving her immediate family. Solo, or as a very active member of a class, she was at the moment suing automobile manufacturers, aspirin makers, television networks, department stores, airlines, law firms that had previously represented her, and an array of ex-employees, including two former personal assistants.

While passionately involved in every one of these matters, Mrs. W was not at all coordinated or methodical and never knew exactly where she was in any ongoing concern, whom she owed, who owed her, and where and when the meeting was supposed to take place. She really needed a personal assistant.

And Fiona was perfect for the job. She was calm, she had no ax to grind, and she had a natural love for detail. Particularly for all the more reprehensible details of Mrs. W’s busy life, the double-dealing and chicanery, the stories behind all the lawsuits and all the feuds and all the shifting loyalties among Mrs. W’s many rich-lady friends.

And, just to make Fiona’s life complete, Mrs. W was writing an autobiography! Talk about history in the raw. Mrs. W had total recall of every slight she’d ever suffered, every snub, every shortchanging, every encounter in which the other party had turned out to be even more grasping, shrewder, and more untrustworthy than she was. She dictated all these steaming memories into a tape recorder in spurts of venom, which Lucy Leebald, Mrs. W’s current secretary, had to type out into neat manuscript.

Perhaps predictably, Westlake’s deep animosity towards the very rich abated just a touch when it came to very rich women.  Not that they were ever fetching fantasy figures in his fiction.  But he could appreciate that great wealth, inherited or otherwise, was one means whereby a woman could be absolutely unequivocally herself in a chauvinistic society, without anybody calling her on it.   Or at least anybody whose opinion she is obliged to give two shits about.  Whether this is a good thing or not, is, of course, a different matter.  But it’s a thing.

Livia Northwood Wheeler is a dominating presence in this book, and not only because she is at least part-owner of this chess set Dortmunder is out to steal, which she knows literally nothing about except the fact that she doesn’t want her scheming relations to get it. She has no idea her grandfather stole the set from his army buddies, and used it to build a real estate empire that has given her the position in life she now enjoys.  She’s never laid eyes on it. But Fiona’s seemingly innocent questions about it, that led indirectly to her now being very happily in this dragon lady’s employ, have made the dragon lady ask some inconvenient questions.

“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”

“Of course it is. But it’s a different history I want you to think about now.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Do you remember a discussion we had—two discussions, I think—about the Chicago chess set?”

Oh, dear. Fiona had been afraid to even mention the chess set, but wanting to help her grandfather in his quest—even if at the moment he believed he’d given it up—she had given it a try. She’d even—when they were looking together at the photos of the pieces on Mrs. W’s computer—managed to “discover” the mismatch in weight among the rooks.

But that had been some time ago. She’d given the effort up when she’d seen she was getting nowhere and might even be putting herself at risk. But now Mrs. W herself had raised the issue; for good, or for ill?

Heart in her mouth but expression as innocent as ever, Fiona said, “Oh, yes, ma’am. That beautiful chess set.”

“You noticed one of the pieces was the wrong weight.”

“Oh, I remember that.”

“Very observant of you,” Mrs. W said, and nodded, agreeing with herself. “That fact kept bothering me, after our discussions, and I soon realized there was far more mystery surrounding that chess set than merely one unexpectedly lighter rook.”

Looking alert, interested, Fiona said, “Oh, really?”

“Where is that chess set from?” Mrs. W demanded, glaring severely at Fiona. “Who made it? Where? In what century? It just abruptly appears, with no history, in a sealed glass case in the lobby of my father’s company, Gold Castle Realty, when they moved into the Castlewood Building in 1948. Where was it before 1948? Where did my father get it, and when? And now that we know the one piece is lighter than the rest, and is a castle, now we wonder, where did my father get his company name?”

“Gold Castle, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

Knowing how she could answer every last one of Mrs. W’s questions, but how doing so would be absolutely the worst move she could make, Fiona said, “Well, I guess he had to have it somewhere else before he put up the new building.”

“But where?” Mrs. W demanded. “And how long had he had it? And who had it before him?” Mrs. W shook her head. “You see, Fiona, the more you study that chess set, the deeper the mystery becomes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“History and mystery,” Mrs. W mused. “The words belong together. Fiona, I want you to ferret out the history and the mystery of the Chicago chess set.”

I am being given, Fiona thought, the one job in all the world at which I have to fail. I’m the mystery, Mrs. W, she thought, I’m the mystery and the history, my family and I, and you must never know.

So this is Fiona’s latest identity crisis, but I see nary a one for Mrs. W.  She never, at any time, questions her right to the massive wealth and influence she inherited.  She does, eventually, learn of her grandfather’s crime, and she finds it appalling, and never does she make the slightest existential query as a result of that.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the very rich, and most particularly those who were born that way, are very different from you and me–not because they have more money, but because they just assume it’s their natural inalienable right to have all that money.  And in their position, so would you.

The Devil Wears Prada was published in 2003, perhaps around the time this book was written, and there is a hint of the relationship between that novel’s title character and protagonist and that between Mrs. W. and Fiona.  However, it’s a very different thing to scratch and claw your way to the top, and to simply be born there as a result of somebody else’s scratching and clawing.

So perhaps fortunately for Fiona, there is no friction between her and her new employer. Mrs. W. can never see her as a rival, let alone a protégé.  Simply one in a long chain of people who exist to service her needs.  It may have seemed as if she was making it up to Fiona by hiring her on after accidentally getting her fired from her law firm, but who ended up with the perfect assistant as a result?   At her most altruistic, she is still helping herself more than anyone else.  Well, that’s the unfortunate part of it, you see.

When Mrs. W. learns of the secret connection between their families–and she knows Fiona was born into a moneyed family as well, even though she’s clearly not inheriting any great wealth–she’s politely apologetic, and not the least bit sorry.  The fact is, it’s all working out in her favor, as things pretty much always tend to do.  And she’s not done helping herself yet.

Fiona has a live-in boyfriend, named Brian, who works at some youth-oriented cable channel, that does a lot of snarky youth-oriented programming.  Brian was definitely not born into a moneyed family, but clearly wishes he was, and his interest in Fiona is pretty clearly motivated at least in part by her proximate connection to great wealth, though the life they lead is anything but lush.

He’s delighted when Fiona gets the job with Mrs. W, and wants to find some excuse to meet the old gal.  He finally hits on inviting her to this ‘March Madness’ party at his office–which is a costume party.  He invariably goes as a character from one of the shows his network puts on. The Reverend Twisted.  Fiona seems to always go as herself, and never really fits in with all the pretenders.

But who will Mrs. W. appear as?  She keeps it a secret to the last possible moment.

Yes; that was it. The clunky black lace-up shoes; the black robe; the tall conical black hat; the outsize wart on nose; the green-strawed broom held aloft. It was Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz to the life; to the teeth. “And that goes for your little dog, too!” she cried, exiting the elevator and announcing her presence.

She was an instant hit. Awareness rippled outward through the hall, and people were drawn as by magnets in her direction. People crowded around her, people applauded her, people tried to hold conversations with her, people gave her about thirty drinks. The only sour note in the event, as it were, was the band’s attempt to play “Over the Rainbow”; fortunately, most people didn’t recognize it.

The first excitement and delight soon passed, and the party returned to approximately where it had been before Mrs. W had made her appearance, only with an extra little frisson created by this new presence in their midst. It isn’t every party that has a drop-in from the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps the most beloved and certainly the best-known villainess in pop culture.

With the theater ticket sales to prove it.  So rich she was able to order a rewrite, with herself as the beautiful young heroine!  Wicked opened on Broadway the same year The Devil Wears Prada saw print, and that does not seem like a coincidence to me, but who the hell knows?

What Fiona knows, watching her employer dance with her boyfriend, while she sits on the sidelines, holding the witch’s broom, is that she is definitely getting the short end of the stick.  But we can talk about that later.  Right now, we’re going to be–

Watching The Detectives:

In the earliest days of his retirement years, Eppick had thought about hiring on somewhere, but a life on wages after so many years on the Job had just seemed too much of a comedown.  It was time to be his own boss for a while, see how that would play out.  So he got his private investigator’s license, not hard for an ex-cop, and set up the office down on East Third because it was inexpensive and he didn’t feel he was going to have to impress anybody.  All he needed was files and a phone.  Besides, private eyes were expected to office in grungy neighborhoods.

Jacques Perly was the only private detective Jay Tumbril knew, or was likely to know. A specialist in the recovery of stolen art, frequently the go-between with the thieves on the one side and the owner/museum/insurer on the other, Perly was a cultured and knowledgeable man, far from the grubby trappings associated with the term “private eye.”

Tumbril had known Perly slightly for years, since the Feinberg firm had more than once been peripherally involved in the recovery of valuable art stolen from its clients, and now, although Fiona Hemlow could not fairly be described as either “stolen” or “art,” Jacques Perly was the man Jay Tumbril thought to turn to when there were Questions to be Asked.

They met at one that Monday afternoon for lunch at the Tre Mafiosi on Park Avenue, a smooth, hushed culinary temple all in white and green and gold, with, this time of year, pink flowers. Perly had arrived first, as he was supposed to, and he rose with a smile and an outstretched hand when Tony the maître d’ escorted Jay to the table. A round, stuffed Cornish game hen of a man, Jacques Perly retained a slight hint of his original Parisian accent. A onetime art student, a failed artist, he viewed the world with a benign pessimism, the mournful good humor of a rich unmarried uncle, who expects nothing and accepts everything.

Westlake made a very interesting choice here, in giving us two private detectives to watch, one of them trying to arrange a heist, the other trying to prevent it.  But we’re not supposed to root for either of them.  Just watch them, and note the differences.  A study in contrasts, something he was always good at.

What he always had trouble with was identifying with detectives–that is to say, with those who have made it their business to sniff out secrets, solve mysteries, tiptoe around in gum-soled shoes–as far back as Killing Time, his mistrust of them was made clear.  (Though the Mitch Tobin mysteries rank with his very best work, and in my estimation are a cut above all but a handful of stories written in this subgenre, that’s basically an anti-detective series.)

To write about detectives, he needed to subvert the formula, defeat expectations, because he just did not believe in detectives, though he was fascinated by the idea of solving puzzles.  There could be many reasons for that, but I’d assume one of them would be that it was detectives working for the NY state police who caught him stealing in college, and threw him in a cage for a few days.  They humiliated him, and he spent the rest of his life returning the favor with interest.  (We Irish are noted for our long memories.)

So you would think, wouldn’t you, that it would be Eppick, the retired cop, ready to put our beloved Dortmunder in a cell for the rest of his life if he won’t cooperate, who’d be the nemesis here.  Maybe he was originally intended as such, and Westlake changed his mind.

There are darkly ominous moments relating to Eppick, such as when he surprises May at her job, getting in the checkout line at the supermarket, to send a message to Dortmunder that he knows his every weak spot.  His interest in the chess set seems much more than just professional; his distress when Hemlow calls the whole thing off for a time is palpable. But he likes the life he’s got, and the wife he’s got, has no interest in going off to build a new identity with ill-gotten goods.  This is just a way to pass the time for him.  He’s enjoying the drama, the intrigue, and quite honestly, the company of men he used to incarcerate for a living.

This is the second time I’ve read this, but memory is a sieve, and again I found myself thinking Eppick was going to try a cross, steal the stolen chess set for himself, leave Dortmunder & Co. holding the empty bag–and clearly we’re supposed to expect that, but that’s not what happens.  Both detectives ultimately prove honest, each after his own fashion.  Westlake ultimately sides with the one who proves to be an honest crook.

Eppick ultimately gets his drama, and Jacques Perly gets the shaft (and I don’t mean the one who’s like a sex machine with all the chicks).  Perly gets hired by the same high-powered lawyer who fired Fiona, because he’s worried–Mrs. Wheeler, his very lucrative litigious client, wants that chess set taken out of the bank vault and examined by experts.  For no other reason, really, than that Fiona has aroused her curiosity about it.  Her squabbling relations have no objection, probably because they’ve always been curious about it themselves.  None of them has ever laid eyes on it (and none of them ever will).

Perly is supposed to find out if there’s some nefarious scheme behind all this, and his suspicion somehow falls on poor Brian, who may have some vague designs on Mrs. Wheeler’s money, but could not care less about the chess set (whose real story he knows from Fiona).

Here’s the problem with this approach–knowing there’s some kind of scheme afloat, and knowing what it is–two different things.  A good detective, like a good scientist, doesn’t shape the facts to fit his theory.  Perly, a polished professional lackey to the rich and powerful, knows everything but what he doesn’t know, but that’s the most important thing anyone can ever know.  Once his instincts tell him Brian is the malefactor, he can’t let go of that assumption, and it irreparably warps his ratiocinative processes.  The narrative builds towards that moment in every mystery book, where The Great Detective unmasks the villain–and we watch with some satisfaction as he falls flat on his smug round face.

Eppick, by contrast, is not significantly better or worse off by the end–he had his fun, and he’ll probably never have another case half as good (though maybe he’d have shown up in future books, if there had been more than just one more book in the future).  He’s actually advocating in good faith for Dortmunder & Co. with Hemlow–a hireling  himself, and perhaps more of a rogue than he ever dreamed, he identifies more with them than with his employer.  What you’re watching in him is a detective and former cop finding out he prefers the black side of the chess board after all.  Maybe he started out as the antagonist, but he ends as decent enough guy, who holds no grudges against Dortmunder for burgling his office.

The Irish have a long memory for slights, as I said, and I don’t know offhand of any ethnicity with a short one–but I’d guess Westlake had made the acquaintance of many a police officer since his youthful disgrace.  He must have had a fair few fans among them, and some would have perhaps aided his research.  Privately, some might even have been willing to admit to the failings of their profession, and in the words of Lucius O’Trigger, “An affront, handsomely acknowledged, becomes an obligation.”   An obligation to at least be an honest dealer, but since the pleasure of a Dortmunder novel is dishonest dealings, it’s time we move on to–

Parkeur Brothers:

Gansevoort Streeet is part of the far West Village, an old seafaring section, an elbow of twisted streets and skewed buildings poked into the ribs of the Hudson River. The area is still called the Meatpacking District, though it’s been more than half a century since the elevated coal-burning trains from the west came down the left fringe of Manhattan to the slaughterhouses here, towing many cattle cars filled with loud complaint. After the trains were no more, some cows continued to come down by truck, but their heart wasn’t in it, and gradually almost an entire industry shriveled away into history.

Commerce hates a vacuum. Into the space abandoned by the doomed cows came small manufacturing and warehousing. Since the area sits next to the actual Greenwich Village, some nightlife grew as well, and when the grungy old nineteenth-century commercial buildings started being converted into pied-à-terres for movie stars, you knew all hope was gone.

Still, the Meatpacking District, even without much by way of the packing of meat, continues to present a varied countenance to the world, part residential, part trendy shops and restaurants, and part storage and light manufacturing. Into this mix Jacques Perly’s address blended perfectly, as Dortmunder and Kelp discovered when they strolled down the block.

Perly had done nothing to gussy up the facade. It was a narrow stone building, less than thirty feet across, with a battered metal green garage door to the left and a gray metal unmarked door on the right. Factory-style square-paned metal windows stretched across the second floor, fronted by horizontal bands of narrow black steel that were designed not to look like prison bars, to let in a maximum of light and view, and to slice the fingers off anybody who grabbed them.

The single best part of the book is not the heist itself, but Dortmunder and Kelp doing a bit of scouting in advance of the heist.  In fact, it’s one of the best pieces of writing in any Dortmunder book, or even any Westlake book–worth the price of admission all by itself.  And if you found some way to sneak in and read it for free, well that’s entirely appropriate.

Dortmunder knows the chess set is coming out of its grim redoubt, and he knows that Jacques Perly has, perhaps imprudently, volunteered his own office on Gansevoort Street, as the site where it will be evaluated by experts.  Security will be tight as hell–they’re going to need to know the set-up in advance.  So he and Kelp head down there at night, and look for a way to break in without triggering any alarms or leaving any trace of their presence.

They find an apartment with a window that looks down on the small building the detective agency is headquartered in.  (The resident of said apartment is out enjoying the nightlife.)  Maybe they can go in by the roof.  Kelp goes out the window to try and find out.  Dortmunder waits for him to come back, but you know what?  Sometimes people come home earlier than you’d think.  He hears a key in the door.  He sees light in a nearby hallway.  Time to improvise.

Dortmunder didn’t go in for agile, he went in for whatever-works. He managed to go out the window simultaneously headfirst and assfirst, land on several parts that didn’t want to be landed on, struggle to his feet, and go loping and limping away as behind him an outraged voice cried, “Hey!”, which was followed almost instantly by a window-slam.

Dortmunder did his Quasimodo shuffle two more paces before it occurred to him what would be occurring to the householder at just this instant, which was: That window was locked. Once more he dropped to the roof, with less injury to himself this time, and scrunched against the wall to his left as that window back there yanked loudly upward and the outraged voice repeated, “Hey!”

Silence.

“Who’s out there?”

Nobody nobody nobody.

“Is somebody out there?”

Absolutely not.

“I’m calling the cops!”

Fine, good, great; anything, just so you’ll get away from that window.

Westlake had been working on this type of parkeur-esque escape scene for a long time now, at least as far back as God Save The Mark–Manhattan is a vertical environment.  Cliffs, plateaus, canyons and arroyos, made of masonry and brick and glass and lots of empty air a person could fall through on his way to the very hard ground below.  There are people who have fun by learning ways to negotiate this hazardous terrain.  Dortmunder would think those people are nuts.  But he’s in a poor position to throw stones right now.

Kelp is nowhere to be seen, obviously he heard the shouts, knows what’s going on, took a powder.  Dortmunder figures Kelp found his way into Perly’s building, and that seems as good an escape route as any.  He can’t just wait around here for some curious cop to show up in response to the householder’s distress call.  But there’s no way into the building from its roof–how can he find his way to some useful doorway?

Rungs. Metal rungs, round and rusty, were fixed to the rear wall, marching from here down to the wrought iron. They did not look like things that any sane person would want to find himself on, but this was not a sanity test, this was a question of escape.

Wishing he didn’t have to watch what he was doing, Dortmunder sat on the low stone wall, then lay forward to embrace it while dangling his left foot down, feeling around for the top rung. Where the hell was it?

Finally he had to shift position so he could turn his head to the left and slither leftward across the stone wall toward the dark drop which, when he could see it, was nowhere near dark enough. In the lightspill from across the way, many items could be seen scrambled together on the concrete paving way down there: metal barrels, old soda bottle cases with soda bottles, lengths of pipe, a couple of sinks, rolls of wire, a broken stroller. Everything but a mattress; no mattresses.

But there was that damn iron rung, not exactly where he’d expected it. He wriggled backward, stabbed for the rung, and got his foot on it at last.

And now what? The first thing he had to do was turn his back on the drop and, while lying crosswise on the stone wall, put as much of his weight as he could on that foot on the rung, prepared at any instant to leap like a cat—an arthritic cat—if the thing gave way.

But it didn’t. It held, and now he could ooch himself backward a little bit and put his right foot also on the rung. One deep breath, and he heard that far-off window fly up, and knew the householder was looking for him again. Could he see this far into the darkness, at the shape of a man lying on a stone wall?

Let’s not give him enough time to pass that test; Dortmunder clutched the inner edge of the wall with both hands in a death grip, and slid back some more, letting the right foot slide on down past the safety of that rung, paw around, paw some more, and by God, find the next rung!

The transition from the second rung to the third was easier, but then the transition to the fourth was much worse, because that was when his hands had to leave the stone wall and, after several slow days of hanging in midair, at last grasp the top rung tightly enough to leave dents.

Overcome, he remained suspended there a minute or two, breathing like a walrus after a marathon, and then he progressed down, down, down, and there was the porch which was really just an openwork metal floor cantilevered from the building, with a skimpy rail at waist height.

Next to him. The rungs did not descend into the railed metal floor but beside it. So now he was supposed to let go of these beautiful rungs and vault over the goddam rail?

He manages, somehow, to overcome this Escherian nightmare.  Down the fire escape, into a little courtyard with a back door to the building waiting for him.  Of course it’s all walled in, no way out to the street, he’s got to go inside, as he still thinks Kelp has done, without leaving any trace of tampering with the lock–very nice work–he pulls out his set of lockpicks.  He wants to do just as well as his comrade in arms.  Professional pride and all.

So he’s in.  Might as well look around.  Has one of those tiny powerful flashlights that most people use as keychains–civilization will eventually provide an industrious thief with every tool he could ever desire.  One door leads to another, and he’s got the run of the place. Scopes it out, seeing its potentials, its vulnerabilities.  He sees a nice wooden door he deduces must lead to Perly’s office.  Locked of course.  Easily unlocked, of course.

And within this holy of holies, right there on Perly’s nice desk, he finds Perly’s extensive notes on the security provisions that will be in place the day the chess set arrives.  And there’s a photocopier he can use to bring them home with him with none the wiser, so helpful.  A bit more poking around yields a garage door opener that can get him and his buddies in there anytime they want.

In his mind, Dortmunder has been following Kelp through this labyrinth, the way Professor Lidenbrock was following Arne Saknussemm to the center of the earth.  But that, he learns, was all in his mind.  Kelp’s parkeurian path led him in an entirely different direction.  So when they meet up later, Dortmunder has to tell him the whole story (and we get to enjoy it all over again).

Kelp was astonished, and said so. “John, I’m astonished.”

“No choice,” Dortmunder said. “Down the rungs, down the fire escape. What got me was how clean you went through that basement door.”

“What basement door?”

“Into Perly’s building. What other way was there?”

Kelp was now doubly astonished. “You went into Perly’s building?”

“What else could I do?”

“Did you never turn around?” Kelp asked him. “Did you never see that humongous apartment house right behind you? You get thirty-seven windows to choose from over there, John.”

Dortmunder frowned, thinking back. “I never even looked over there,” he admitted. “And here I thought how terrific you were, you got through that basement door without leaving a mark, got through and out the building and not one single sign of you.”

“That’s because I wasn’t there,” Kelp said. “Where I was instead, I went into an apartment where there’s nobody home but there’s a couple nice de Koonings on the living room wall, so I went uptown to make them on consignment to Stoon, and then I went home. I never figured you to come down that same way. And wasn’t that a risk, you go in there before we want to go in there? Did you leave marks, John?”

Insulted, Dortmunder said, “What kind of a question is that? Here I tell you how impressed I am how you didn’t leave any marks—”

“It was easier for me.”

“Granted. But then, back last night, you were like my benchmark. So what I left was what you left. Not a trace, Andy, guaranteed.”

“Well, that’s terrific, you found that way in,” Kelp said. “Is that our route on the day?”

“We don’t have to do all that,” Dortmunder told him. “While I was in there anyway, I looked around, I picked up some stuff.”

“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”

“Come on, Andy.”

“You’re right,” Kelp said. “I know better than that. Maybe I’m like Eppick, I’m getting a little tense. So what stuff did you come out with?”

“Their extra garage door opener.”

Kelp reared back. “Their what?”

And all he got was a couple de Koonings.  Actually, as matters arrange themselves, Andy probably ended up doing better out of their night’s work, but there’s no question in either man’s mind which of the Parkeur Brothers did the niftier bit of burglary that night.  There’s always a friendly competition going on between those two, and Andy, to his credit, is only delighted that John got the better of him this time.

You know, all these long quotes are really piling up the word count.  Sorry, I just recently found out how easy it is to copy/paste from Kindle, and it’s going to my head.   Not going to do a Part 3.  Not really feeling the need to cover everything in this book–I’ve spent almost three straight months now, reviewing Dortmunder stories, more than I ever have before–and that’s fitting, since Westlake was likewise writing more Dortmunder than he ever had before.

The results were a bit mixed, but far from unhappy.  This book is a very fine bit of late Westlake, well worth reading.  However, while it’s  a more organic bit of storytelling than the last two, its principle pleasures are still to be found more in the individual bits and pieces than in the finished whole.

I think we’d best move to the endgame now.  Hmm, ‘Endgame’ is too obvious a subheading, and this isn’t Samuel Beckett we’re talking about here.  I wouldn’t say chess was ever the true theme of this novel (I rather doubt Mr. Westlake played it well, if at all), but it was, you might say, a stylistic motif.  How about we go with–

En Poe-sant:

Before dinner, Mr. Hemlow read to them, in the big rustic cathedral-ceilinged living room at the compound, with a staff-laid fire crackling red and orange in the deep stone fireplace, part of a paragraph from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue on the subject of chess: “Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”

Closing the book, nodding his red-bereted head this way and that, Mr. Hemlow said, “What Poe calls draughts is what we know as the game of checkers.”

Kelp said, “I like checkers.”

Eppick said, “That’s easy. Everybody likes checkers. Shall I put the book back on the shelf, Mr. Hemlow?”

“Thank you.”

The heist does not go off quite as planned, because Perly, that eager beaver, shows up earlier than expected, forcing them all to scramble for hiding places.  But the gang somehow avoids having The Great Detective, you know, detect them. Dortmunder figures out a way to conceal himself in the shower of Perly’s private bathroom.

Dortmunder had it all worked out how they were going to disguise themselves as the private security detail (from the unfortunate Continental Detective Agency, that seems perpetually doomed to keep crossing paths with Dortmunder & Co.), and make away with the goods.

But that all goes into a cocked hat, as you’d expect, and Dortmunder improvises a bold gambit.  Thankfully, things don’t go wrong just for him–the armored car with the chess set won’t fit into Perly’s garage, gets stuck on the way in. That’s from an entirely different security company, which means you have a bunch of unrelated security guys milling around–the problem with hiring a lot of extra security is that you end up with a lot of extra security guys who don’t know each other.  Or what the hell is going on.  Until it’s too late.

The gang, improvising to beat the band, poses as yet another layer of security hired by Perly, just take the chess set, put it in their own van, and leave.  He closes the garage door with the garage door opener.  By the time the befuddled rent-a-cops have gotten it open again, the Chicago Chess Set is long gone.  Like a turkey in the corn.  And Perly may never get that armored car out of his garage.

Dortmunder isn’t the type to plan a cross, so they drive the set out to Hemlow’s country place, as planned.  They spray-paint the pieces to disguise them, as planned.  Hemlow comes out with Eppick to view his long-sought holy grail, as planned. And then Nessa and her latest none-too-bright boyfriend, who got into the house the way Brady showed her months before, come out of the woodwork.  Nessa decided Brady had an idea there after all.

They load the heavy gold bejeweled playing pieces, two of which are fakes, into a bright red Cadillac Colossus with MD plates that Kelp picked up back in the city.  (Westake’s final fake car name?  We shall see.)  All that remains is the very nice ebony and ivory chessboard, and a fat lot of good that does anybody.  What was it Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans?  Oh wait, that was schemes.  Same thing, really.

Hemlow is disgusted, but at the same time philosophical.  He gets a bit less philosophical when the sticky question of payment for goods received yet not retained arises, but he reluctantly agrees the laborer is worthy of his hire, and the gang reluctantly agrees to a stiffly reduced fee.  And they just decide to keep it to themselves that Anne Marie’s jeweler friend cooked up a fake queen, and they still have the real one.  I mean, any landing you walk away from is good, right?

Elsewhere, a more successful heist is pulled–Perly insisted that Brian be hauled in and interrogated.  He’s no genius, but he knows enough to keep his mouth shut.  Perly’s case, such as it is, falls to pieces when he triumphantly produces security footage of Brian in the vicinity of his office, in the company of this older woman who he thinks may be a real Ma Barker type.

It’s Livia Northwood Wheeler.  They went to this hot new nightclub down on Gansevoort Street, after the March Madness party.  If Mrs. W. is secretly flattered to be described as a criminal mastermind, she hides it very well, and there is very little in this world as intimidating as an outraged rich lady with all the lawyers in the world at her disposal.  All charges are dropped, and Perly’s reputation is in tatters, much like his garage.

There is also very little as nakedly acquisitive as a rich lady–she’s lost the chess set she never really gave two figs about, but somehow ends up with a badly traumatized and deeply grateful Brian in her tender custody–had her eye on him ever since the party, just like he’s had an eye on her money.  What Livia wants, Livia gets.  Leaving Fiona out in the cold.  It must be in their genes, she thought.  Her father stole my great-grandfather’s future.  And now she’s stolen my boyfriend.  (You ask me, our mouse is better off without her social-climbing louse, but that’s not going to be much comfort in the moment, is it now?)

As to the chess set, fear not.  It finds a good home.  Nessa and whatshisname never stopped to consider that the car they stole in order to steal the chess set might itself be stolen.  The cops get them in New Hampshire.  Nessa claims she never saw this boob before he picked her up.  He’s going down for grand theft auto, she’s off to her next sleazy adventure, while Brady writes people’s names on paper cups in Numbnuts Nebraska.

The incognito Chicago Chess Set, the theft of which New Hampshire policemen neither know nor care about, winds up in the custody of–wait for it–the Little Sisters of Eternal Misery.  Yes, I believe we can assume this is the same order that raised the infant Dortmunder, after he was abandoned on their doorstep, in Dead Indian, Illinois.  They seem to have dropped the Bleeding Heart part of their name, perhaps that was deemed excessive.

They run a home for the elderly in the town.   Old people like to play games to pass the time.  And the pieces are so heavy, it’ll give them a nice bit of cardio to boot (maybe a hernia or two).  Eventually, the paint will start to chip away, and looks like Dortmunder just paid his childhood benefactors off with considerable interest.  He’d be so pleased to know that.

And there’s just one Dortmunder novel remaining–which will mark the end of the main part of my reviewing project.  Still a few months away.  Next in view is a novel that might well have remained forever unpublished, if not for the hard cases at Hard Case Crime.  A James Bond novel–without James Bond.  Without Spectre.  Without gratuitous sex. Without even a single car chase.  And most definitely without easy answers.  But some rather troubling questions.

So you go get the popcorn, and I’ll just put on a little mood music.  This is very definitely the mood I’m in about now.  Don’t know about you.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized

Review: What’s So Funny?

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May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.

May knew it was her job, at moments like this, to pull John out of the clutches of despair and goose him into forward motion once more. After all, it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s just you have to be in the goddam game.

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

(Donald Westlake did not write this.)

Look what I found, rummaging about the dust-free virtual attic–a cops and robbers chess set!  Pretty cool, huh?  This leads, as ever, to a question–if you were going to make a Dortmunder-themed chess set, how would you arrange it?  Obviously Dortmunder, simultaneously peripheral and central to everything, vulnerable and fugitive at all times, is the king.  Of crime.  And kvetching.

The queen must needs be female, someone with great power and freedom of movement, so I’d go with J.C. Taylor, no slight intended to May, who is nothing if not supportive of her larcenous liege in this story, but not a major player in it, not that J.C. is either.   May’s got old movies to watch, and this is not her game.  I’d say that’s maybe Parcheesi.  Mah Jongg?

Knight is the easy one, that cute bastard, always moving in a crooked line.  You never see him coming.  Drops in unannounced and helps himself to a beer.  Do I even have to say it?

Tiny Bulcher would be the castle.  Because he’s massive.  And comes straight at you.  Best not call him a rook.  He might take it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t chance it.

I guess that makes Stan Murch the bishop by default?  Is there an automotive angle to work with here, as with the cops & robbers chess set?  Maybe his mom could be the other bishop.  She’d be in her cab, him in a purloined getaway car (that only goes slantways).  Problem solved, but then I wonder if Rollo the bartender would be better suited to that role.  The Bishop of Bourbon.  I bet that used to be a thing. (checks)  Well, I was almost right.

Dortmunder begins as something of a pawn in this novel, and a fair few others.  So a looming confident Dortmunder as king, and a bunch of shrunken furtive-looking Dortmunders as the pawns?  Or make them all unique quirky supporting characters who only showed up now and again, your Herman X’s, your Wilbur Howeys, your various Wallys?  Aesthetically pleasing, but expensive to manufacture and confusing to play.

Arnie Albright is in the pawn game, you might say, but imagine looking at eight of him.  You’d be sacrificing pawns right and left just to settle your stomach.  The other pieces would sacrifice themselves to get away from him.  Are pawns even appropriate in the context of a writer who celebrated the individual?

As to the other side of the board (which no decent person would even want to play), an assortment of vindictive lawmen, arrogant tycoons, crooked foreign dignitaries from fictive nations, and I guess we could fit Tom Jimson in there somewhere (a very dark knight indeed).  Pawns could just be burly no-neck security men.

These things always break down when you think about it too much.  Chess, as we play it now, is based on the old feudal system, and when we try to update the roles, the analogies get strained.  Sets based on Japanese feudalism work beautifully, but most others fall apart.  I mean, the American Civil War was a lot of things, but it wasn’t feudal, and both sides are always blindingly white, so how do you even know who moves first?  Point is, we already know who moved last.

Putting such distractions aside, I ponder the central question further, and a ray of light appears–make it specifically a Good Behavior themed set–that book is about neo-feudalism, so it works.  Sister Mary Grace could be Dortmunder’s bishop.  (I suppose the Curia might object, but the Pope is cool, we’d get a dispensation.)  A What’s The Worst That could Happen? set also has its attractions, but the temptation to make Max Fairbanks look like You Know Whom would be overpowering, and we’d get tied up in court for eons, possibly jailed for lèse-majesté.  Please feel free to make further suggestions in the comments section, especially if you have access to a 3D Printer.

I prefer checkers myself.  Draughts, if you want to be British about it. Also referenced in this book.  But you can’t do themed checkers sets.  How about Dortmunder Stratego?  Risk seems too obvious to mention.  Chutes and Ladders?  Monopoly is definitely not his game, and anyway it’s copyrighted. Okay fine, we’ll talk about the book.

This is one of the longest Dortmunders, 359 pages in the first edition.  Like all the longer books in this series, it has a lot of extraneous material in it–I’m tempted to call it Six Subplots in Search of an Author.  But once I worked my way through through a somewhat muddled opening gambit, I was pleased to find the author does in fact show up to play.  Pirandello he ain’t, but he has his own decided take on theater of the absurd.

It’s not mainly about the heist, but the heist is great.  It’s got a lot of fol-de-rol in it about characters we’ll never see again, who are only tangentially involved with the heist, but somehow Westlake does a better job here making them mesh with the overall story than he did with the previous two, which ended up feeling like several different books stitched together.  At this point, as previously discussed, it’s almost impossible for him to find anything new to say about Dortmunder & Co.  He needs new characters with new identity crises to work on.  Or else it’s going to be a short book (like the next and final one, which does somehow find one more thing to say about the main cast).

It’s got two very different rich people as pivotal characters, and surprise–they’re both oddly likable, and neither is Dortmunder’s nemesis.  Neither is an aggressive narcissistic billionaire, either–both have some irritating rich people quirks, but they’re not villains, per se.  The rich are human too.  No, seriously.

It’s also got two very different private detectives (another peevish pet of Mr. Westlake’s), and that’s a more complicated discussion.  It’s got a variety of very different young people seeking their footing in the world, variously finding and/or losing it.  All this plus Captain Francis X. Mologna, the somehow still solvent Continental Detective Agency, perhaps the finest extant sample of Dortmunder parkeur, a golden bejeweled chess set, a subplot ripped straight out of a sleaze paperback, and Edgar Allan Poe.  Still not a patch on the early classics, but I might go so far as to call it a late one.

Let’s just lay out the set-up.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, and wonders why none of the regulars are talking about things they don’t know about, or talking at all, for that matter.  Because there’s a cop in the bar, that’s why.  Not in  uniform, but he might as well be, with the ‘plainclothes’ he’s wearing.  Not a man, woman, child, or dog there couldn’t spot a cop blindfolded, if he came in dressed like Quentin Crisp.

As if that’s not bad enough, Dortmunder realizes, to his horror, that said cop is there to see him.  For which crime, he wonders?  Remember, Dortmunder is now, as ever, on double secret probation with the law–one more strike and he’s out–of circulation, ’til death or compassionate release, whichever comes first, and they’d amount to the same thing, really.

When is a cop not a cop?  When he’s done his twenty, retired from the force, and his wife in the ‘burbs told him to find something to do with himself before they both went nuts.  This is how Johnny Eppick (for hire), formerly of the NYPD, ended up a P.I., duly licensed, with an office on East 3rd St., far east as you can go without drowning.    He could have just taken a job with some security outfit, which is what most retired cops who decide retirement sucks do. But there’s a romantic streak in Mr. Eppick (that’s why his card says ‘Johnny,’ instead of merely ‘John.’)

Having hung out his shamus shingle quite recently, Eppick lucked his way into the kind of job most real P.I.’s only encounter when they’re watching TCM.  An eccentric millionaire named Hemlow, an inventor no less, in a wheelchair no less, wants him to help recover a priceless chess set, made of (almost) solid gold, encrusted with precious gems, heavy as hell, with a fascinating history behind it that of course they insist on sharing with Dortmunder, who is no more successful at preventing them from doing so than Parker was with that Lost Mourner of Dijon, and you’re not skipping the history lesson either, so there.

Hemlow’s father and his army buddies found the chess set in an abandoned warehouse in the port city of Murmansk, while involved in the ill-fated American military expedition to Russia after WWI. It had been meant as a gift to the czar and his family, but that ship had already been shot and bayoneted multiple times.  These shivering young shavetails dreamed of using it to become pioneering media moguls in radio once their government let them come in out of the cold.

But instead, their sergeant, a sly bastard named Northwood, made off with it, dropping from sight, along with their dreams.  Hemlow’s father never recovered from the loss, his family has never stopped grousing over this injustice, even as his chemical patents made them all quite comfortable. But where’s the romance in chemical patents, I ask you?

It was his lawyer granddaughter, an amateur historian, who much to her surprised fascination, found out that Northwood used the set to set himself up in real estate (no better field for an unrepentent cad), and he’s long dead of course, but his very wealthy family is still fighting over his estate–including the chess set.  Now ensconced in a bank vault in the subbasement of the very building she works in, she being a minor functionary in a major law firm, which represents one of the squabbling heirs.

I mean, put yourself in the dick’s flat feet.  This is the stuff dreams are made of, schweetheart.

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(I couldn’t find a Maltese Falcon chess set.  Maybe the black birds could be different colors, sizes? Wear crowns, miters, perch on tiny castles, horses, etc?  Different species of falcon?  I’ll get to work on that right after the Dortmunder chess set sells its first million units.)

Since the gumshoe part of the program has already been attended to by the granddaughter, what’s left for Eppick?  Well, the ailing Hemlow wants to get that chess set back before he dies.  Legally speaking, he’s got no leg to stand on (that was insensitive), no way to prove prior ownership of something the gypped GI’s didn’t technically steal, and didn’t technically own, either.  He’d die long before the lawyers finished collecting their fees.  He doesn’t need the money himself, but dreams of righting past wrongs, seeing that the other families get their rightful wrongful due.  You know–closure.

Hence–a heist.  Eppick is to seek a suitably skilled specialist then solicit the sap to steal the serially stolen set.  And what’s to stop a professional thief from just making off with the goods?  Why would he even attempt such a risky job for the relative pittance of a fee that Hemlow shall provide?

Leverage.  Eppick did his research, figured Dortmunder was the right wrong guy for the job, and obtained images from surveillance footage of him burglarizing a store.  Blurry images, but if Dortmunder declines the job offer, all Eppick has to do is point and his cop buddies shall descend like vultures upon our hero’s slope-shouldered carcass.  Even if they can’t make that particular charge stick, they’ll find something. And he’ll find his old cell waiting for him.  As he will if they catch him trying to get that chess set.  And anyone trying to get into that bank vault and back out again with a 680 pound chess set tucked in his pockets is getting caught.  Catch-22.

Much as he hates the idea, rather than plagiarize Joseph Heller, our metropolitan mutt considers leaving New York forever.  This passage contains one of those lines people always quote without necessarily remembering exactly how it goes or which book it came from.

Riding down, alone this trip, he thought his best move now was to go straight over to Grand Central, take the first train out for Chicago.  That’s supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city.  It could even work out.  Meet up with some guys there, get plugged in a little, learn all those new neighborhoods.  Get settled, then send word to May, she could bring out his winter clothes.  Chicago was alleged to be very cold.

(I believe that is a known fact about Chicago.  The city thing remains a matter of opinion.)

Eppick, wise to the ways of felons, anticipates this fantasy of setting out for the territories, and shuts it down cold.  Police departments are communicating much more than they used to, via the internet.  He’d put out feelers, and the blue network would find Dortmunder, no matter what godforsaken hole he curled up in.  Oh now, Chicago, don’t be so sensitive, you’ve got that deep-fish pizza or whatever and that tower named after a nigh-defunct chain of department stores.  And did you just win a World Series recently?  Twice in the last century?  That’s cute.

(Tiny later informs Dortmunder the loophole to Eppick’s outreach would be someplace like Biloxi–southern cops still don’t talk to Yankee cops, let alone those that root for the New York Yankees–Biloxi is not even theoretically a city, so that still wouldn’t work. He might as well try Mayberry.  Maybe he did, lot of eps I never got around to watching.)

Though initially, after they see him with Eppick,  his felonious friends treat him like he’s come down with a mild case of plague, loyalty mingled with curiosity mingled with greed brings them in to confer.  Maybe there’s some way they can get this thing.  Maybe there’s even some way they can keep it.

Eppick knows quite well that Dortmunder can’t pull this job by himself, and is pleased when he learns Kelp has come in–a bit less pleased when Kelp turns out to be his opposite number in more ways than one, and not the least bit intimidated by Eppick, now that he knows this isn’t a real cop anymore, and (more to the point) that he’s actively engaged in soliciting an illegal act.  Kelp, more into pool than chess, sees angles to be played here.  Question is, what angle is Eppick playing?

The string in this one is composed of Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and Judson Blint, who was only introduced in the last book, and is still working his day job with J.C., keeping her old mail order cons alive, while she concentrates on being her own country. That’s a photo of four of them up top.  Murch isn’t there, must be working on the warp drive or something.  I think you can guess which one Judson is.  Oh, that was mean.  But it gives us an opening for–

The Crusher Conundrum:

Kelp said, “You know, we got another little conundrum here. I know it isn’t as important as the main problem—”

“The vault,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the problem I was thinking of,” Kelp agreed. “Anyway,” he told the others, “you see these pictures of these two rooks.”

“Those are castles,” Stan said.

“Yes, but,” Kelp said, “rook is a name for them in chess. Anyway, everything weighs the way it’s supposed to, except this one rook here is three pounds lighter than the other rooks.”

They all leaned over the pictures, including Judson, who got up from the radiator and came over to stand beside the table, gazing down.

Stan said, “They look alike.”

“But you see the weight,” Kelp said. “They wrote it down right there.”

Stan nodded. “Maybe it’s a typo.”

“This stuff is all pretty careful,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder said, “I don’t find this as gripping as the main problem.”

“No, of course not,” Kelp said. “It’s just a mystery, that’s all.”

“No, it isn’t,” Judson said. “That part’s easy.”

Judson Blint is something of a prodigy, something of a ‘Nephew’, and 100% a Wesley (I should not need to explain).  And maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, Westlake’s idealized younger self, stepping into an exciting criminal underworld, and grasping its finer points with alacrity.  The amateur learning how to be a pro.

And he’s all over this book, even though little further attempt is made to develop his character.  He’ll be playing this role for the remainder of the series, which isn’t saying much.  He figures out things the more seasoned heisters, including Dortmunder, are baffled by.  A fresh young mind.  Is this necessarily a good thing?  Well, it’s a thing, whether we think it’s good or not.

Hence The Mystery of the Cooked Rook.  Looking at the vital statistics of the set provided them by Hemlow’s granddaughter, Kelp notices one of the pieces is much lighter than it should be.  It’s Judson who has the sleuthly flash of insight that this is because Northwood, having stolen the set, needed some ready cash in order to get out of town and then make his fortune with it as collateral.  He raised it by selling the gold and jewels from one of the castles–and replacing it with a clever copy, so as to seem not to have broken up the set, thereby reducing its value.

This later leads to the gang doing the same thing themselves, Anne Marie knowing a jeweler of flexible ethics in DC (yes, we all get the joke, Mr. Westlake). But it does not solve the problem of how to get into the vault, and when asked how they do that, Judson says they can’t.  It’s impossible.  The gang wracks its collective brains and comes up with zip.  Dortmunder is in despair, and Judson feels bad.

It’s Dortmunder, the full professional, with more than amateur brilliance to guide him, who will find the answer.  But this answer doesn’t come to Dortmunder immediately,  and in the meantime Judson is at the bank building (the good old Capitalists and Immigrants Trust from Bank Shot, called C&I International here), casing the joint to try and find the solution himself, and Kelp comes along to tell him he’s doing it wrong, drawing too much attention to himself.  Kelp continues to take Judson under his wing, because Kelp is the Riker in this crew.  Dortmunder is Data.  Tiny is Worf.  Murch would be some combo of La Forge and O’Brien.  There is so not a Picard here.  There are a whole slew of Trek-related chess sets we might look at, but let’s don’t.

Rather, let’s take a closer look at a character not much older than Judson Blint, who plays a somewhat less intrepid role here, but also a more important and interesting one.  But though her role be large, she herself is not.

Ode to a Mouse:

“So you found this thing,” Dortmunder began. “This chess set.”

She laughed. “Oh, Mr. Dortmunder, this is too good a story to just jump in and tell the end.”

Dortmunder hated stories that were that good, but okay, once again no choice in the matter, so he said, “Sure. Go ahead.”

“When I was growing up,” she said, “there was every once in a while some family talk about a chess set that seemed to make everybody unhappy, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was gone, or lost, or something, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal.”

She drank Diet Pepsi and give him a warning finger-shake. “I don’t mean the family was full of nothing but talk about this mysterious chess set, it wasn’t. It was just a thing that came up every once in a while.”

“Okay.”

“So last summer it came up again,” she said, “when I was visiting my father at the Cape, and I asked him, please tell me what it’s all about, and he said he didn’t really know. If he ever knew, he’d forgotten. He said I should ask my grandfather, so when I got back to the city I did. He didn’t want to talk about it, turned out he was very bitter on that subject, but I finally convinced him I really wanted to know what this chess set meant in the family, and he told me.”

“And that made you find it,” Dortmunder said, “when nobody else could.”

“That’s right,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by history, and this was history with my own family in it, the First World War and invading Russia and all the rest of it. So I took down the names of everybody in that platoon that brought the chess set to America, and the other names, like the radio company they wanted to start, Chess King Broadcasting, and everything else I thought might be useful, and I Googled it all.”

Dortmunder had heard of this; some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business. He preferred a world in which people stuck to their own knitting, but that world was long gone. He said, “You found some of these people on Google.”

Fiona Hemlow, daughter of Hemlow Senior’s third son, is in her middle 20’s, black of hair, slight of stature, efficient, decent-natured, and mainly a stranger to herself.  Like many people just out of law school, she’s a very small part of a very large firm–a ‘wee beastie’ she terms herself, and you know where that term derives from, dinna ye not?  A modern girl, probably not fluent in Lallans, she wouldn’t describe herself as sleeket, cowran, or tim’rous.  But aren’t we all, sometimes?  Us and all our best-laid schemes.  Beware of murd’ring pattles.

Fiona, like any mouse, has a tendency to poke her curious whiskers where they are not welcome. She’s clearly bored with her job, and to find that the fabled chess set of family lore is being kept in a vault beneath her tiny feet is not something she could be expected to keep to herself, so off she runs to the grandfather, the patriarch of her clan, the one whose inventiveness and drive brought them all up in the world with him, and no doubt paid for her schooling.

She herself is not to be involved in any way with the theft, naturally–Hemlow Sr. is repeatedly at pains to warn Dortmunder about that, wracked with guilt at any thought his granddaughter might suffer for his pursuance of an old vendetta. And yet here she is, talking to Dortmunder about it, in her own office, and feeling guilty about having put the poor man in this situation.  Her worries will be closer to home soon enough.

It’s a bit like the Stone Soup.  Seems so simple at first, then you get lured in, one ingredient at a time.  Dortmunder needs the specs on the set, he needs to know more about the heirs, he needs this, he needs that, or the soup will never be ready.  And Fiona self-evidently wants to play the sleuth as much as Judson does, but she is constrained by her position.  She can’t commit to the game, as Judson does, because she’s playing too many different games at once.

She forces herself to personally address one of the squabbling heirs, just because it’s such a thrill to meet a member of the family her family has had a shadow-feud with all these years.  Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler, who does not bear fools gladly, or at all (though she herself has never worked for a living in her life, would be mortally offended if you suggested she should).

Fiona makes up a story about how she’s always admired this woman, her guts, her refusal to ever let anyone get the better of her (least of all her own family), and only later realizes she really does admire Mrs. Wheeler for that, because that’s how she’d like to be (but such is not a mouse’s lot).

Mrs. W, as she’s known for most of the book, suspects a ploy (because she always suspects a ploy, literally every day of her life) and goes to Fiona’s boss, Mr. Tumbril (the term for the carts used to convey prisoners to the guillotine; you ever wonder how much time Westlake spent on names alone?)  She assumed Fiona was questioning her on Tumbril’s behalf.

Mrs. W., not quite the dragon she appears, Fiona’s fellow mortal (and female, in a man’s world), only realizes her mistake when Tumbril decapitates Fiona (in a professional sense) right in front of her.  A stunned Fiona mails out the intel Dortmunder needs, right before she cleans out her desk, with security watching her, and is conveyed in disgrace (but not in a cart) to the street outside.  Her wee-bit housie in ruin.

And the end result of this bleak December wind?  She winds up as Mrs. W’s personal assistant, in a fantastic office with a view of Central Park, a spy in the enemy’s camp, but really more of a double agent, because as mentioned, she truly does admire and like her curmudgeonly new employer, and is grateful for her suddenly improved prospects–but she’s embroiled in a plot to steal from her. How long before the cruel coulter (no, not that one) slices through her cell once more?  Forward tho’ she canna see, she guesses and fears.

Oh, and there’s some stuff about her no-good boyfriend (spoiler alert), but that can wait for later.

What could have waited for always is the one subplot (in this book crammed to the gills with them) I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s there.  Maybe you can pierce the puzzle of–

Murch’s Muddled Mecca:

“I’m happy for them,” John said. “But up till now I don’t see your idea in here.”

“The dome,” Stan said.

John just looked at him, ostrich or bison visible in his open mouth.

So Stan said, “The dome got delivered before they shut down, and it’s gold. Not solid gold, you know, but not gold paint either. Real gold. Gold plate or something. It’s sitting out there on this empty construction site, it was delivered when the walls were supposed to be up, but of course the walls weren’t up, so it’s sitting there, with this crane next to it.”

“I think I’m getting this,” John said. “It’s your idea, we use the crane, we pick up this dome— How big is this dome?”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high.”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high. You wanna pick this up and take it away.”

“With the crane, like you said.”

“And where you gonna stash this thing?”

“That’s part of what we gotta work out,” Stan said.

“Maybe you can take it to Alaska,” John said, “and paint it white, and make everybody think it’s an igloo.”

“I don’t think we could get it that far,” Stan told him. “All the bridges. And forget tunnels.”

Poor Stan.  The world’s greatest getaway driver, the human GPS, and he gets no respect, no respect at all.  He never even gets to outrun the cops in a thrilling chase scene (because seriously, if you’re being chased by the cops, probably with news choppers overhead, the heist is already ruined, and you’re going away for a long time, to watch the chase footage in the prison rec room, over and over, on those damn reality shows).

So at least he gets a subplot here, but it goes nowhere.  He wants to heist the (partly) golden dome for a mosque under construction along the Belt Parkway–he drives past the site all the time, to and from Canarsie, and it’s calling out to him, “Stan!  Stan!  Come get me!”

Dortmunder really does not have time enough in the day to list all the ways in which this is an incredibly bad idea (he already had some kind of fatwah out on him in Why Me?, and that was just over a fucking ring).  He’s got this chess set to worry about, he’s got Eppick to worry about, and if anything, this dome job is even worse.  He gives a very hurt Murch the brush.

But Murch just won’t give up.  He gets Kelp out there, he gets Judson out there, they all have to go look at the golden dome, and they all think it’s a terrible idea to try and heist it, and finally Murch has to give up on it, and go along with this other job they’re all getting sucked into, because John (their brain, and down inside they all know it), is going to get sucked back into prison if they can’t manage to make it work.

What the hell was that about?  You keep waiting for it to get tied back into the main story (maybe they could hide the chess set under the dome?), and it never is.  Dortmunder subplots sometimes turn into dead ends, which is not typical of Westlake’s work as a whole.  The first three books were perfectly balanced–most of what followed was Westlake clearing out his mental attic, while spending time with old and cherished friends.

I would think Westlake himself was driving past a construction site for a mosque, or saw it on TV, and thought “hmmmm.”  And then “naaaaahhh!” Maybe this ties back to research he did for the first Samuel Holt novel, which hinged upon a newly built golden-domed mosque in L.A. (In that case, it was the entire four book series that went nowhere.)

Now I say he doesn’t tie it in to the main heist, but axiomatically speaking, you might say he does.  Because Dortmunder finally hits on it.  What they have to do in order to get that chess set.   That is in that vault.  The one even Judson says they can’t possibly get into and back out again.

“No, you were right,” John said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along, there’s no way to get into that vault.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fuggedabodit. See, what it is I gotta do, I gotta stop thinking about getting into the vault because I can’t get into the vault. That’s the backwards part.”

Judson said, “It is?”

“The mountain,” John explained, “gotta go to whatsisname. Mohammed.”

Fearing the worst, May said, “John?”

“You know,” John said, and gestured vaguely with both hands. “He won’t go to that, so that’s gotta go to him. Same with the vault. We can’t get in at the chess set, case closed, no discussion, so what we gotta do is get the chess set to come out to us.”

“That’s brilliant, John,” Andy said. “How do we do that?”

“Well,” John said, “that’s the part I’m working on.”

Let’s work on it next time.  I’d say next week, but look how long it’s been since my last post.  Whenever.  Oh, and Murch to Kelp 2.  Check.  Your move.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Transgressions

When I was writing novellas for the pulp magazines back in the 1950’s, we still called them “novelettes,” and all I knew about the form was that it was long and it paid half a cent a word.  This meant that if I wrote 10,000 words, the average length of a novelette back then, I would sooner or later get a check for five hundred dollars.  This was not bad pay for a struggling young writer.

A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words.  Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words), it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain’t easy to write.  In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all.

Ed McBain.  AKA Evan Hunter.  AKA Salvatore Albert Lombino.

This assignment turned out to be more complex than expected.  Which is par for the course.  This is the mystery genre, after all.  Does a book detective ever have a less complex assignment than expected?

Originally, I was just going to review the Dortmunder novella Westlake contributed to the Transgressions anthology, edited by his longtime friend and mentor, Evan Hunter, under his more popular crime fiction pseudonym. This being far and away the shortest and simplest Dortmunder that isn’t a short story, I figured it wouldn’t take much time–but rereading it, I came to a realization regarding its true authorship, that had eluded me in the first reading.  So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that this time I read all three novellas in the paperback edition I’d originally acquired just to read Westlake’s.  The paperback reprints of the original collection were from Tor, a publisher Westlake probably assumed he’d never be involved with again after the Sam Holt debacle.  They broke up the original set into several, and it just happened that Westlake’s story shared a volume with McBain’s and Walter Mosley’s.

I know McBain fairly well but not intimately–I’ve read maybe half a dozen 87th Precinct novels, early books in the series, and hope to read a lot more (All of them?  Who says I’m living that long?)  I’m a fan, with a few minor reservations. I don’t think any mystery writer other than Doyle has been more identified with just one franchise.  And that’s the franchise represented here, one of the very last 87th Precinct stories ever written, if not the very last (or the very best, but McBain said novellas were hard).

Mosley I’ve only glimpsed from afar, till now–I was bemused at his introduction here (presumably written by McBain), which says he followed in the tradition of Chester Himes and John Carroll Daly, but ‘added the complex issue of race relations’–???–pretty sure Himes beat him to that by over three decades, with the Harlem Detective novels. But Himes left plenty of material for Mosley to work with.  He doesn’t write like Himes (no one did), and I don’t get the Daly reference at all.  I saw different influences.  And a writer I need to maybe move up in the queue.  We have some shared interests.

So this is, after all, The Westlake Review, and I could be pardoned for just skipping over the other two offerings here.  (I’m sure not reviewing all ten.)  I am, predictably, most interested in the Dortmunder story, which is, predictably, the best piece of writing on offer here.  But in certain respects, the other two are more interesting to me.  I can’t just ignore them, any more than when reviewing The Perfect Murder, I could pass over all the other contributors to that crazy quilt of a book.  Mr. Westlake said he and all his fellow authors swam in the same ocean together, and I would be doing him no service by ignoring his fellow swimmers.

The stories are billed in alphabetical order, then presented in reverse alphabetical order, and I’m going to reverse it yet again, and begin with McBain. Buckle up, we’re headed into Isola, for what is, unfortunately, still a very topical piece, entitled–

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

“So much hate in this city,” Meyer said softly.  “So much hate.”

McBain died in 2005, the year Transgressions was published.  At 78 (Aw geez, he died at 78? Invert that and cue the Twilight Zone theme.), his mind was still sharp and inquisitive, his passion for the city of his birth, that became the city of his imagination, still undiminished.  He was not quite the writer he had once been, and the 87th was now hopelessly lost in a sea of mediocre copycat procedural melodramas with the precinct as the protagonist.  Nothing succeeds like excess.

He was working on novels to the very end, he had assembled a truly prestigious group of authors for this collection (that presaged the recent resurrection of the novella, now once again commercially viable, thanks to e-readers), he had laurels to spare.  He could have turned in a standard bit of rigamarole; a sex criminal, a bank robber, maybe bring back The Deaf Man, super villains being hotter than ever in the 21st.

Instead, he chose to take on the issue of Muslim immigrant communities in the big city, post-9/11.  The  man never lacked for guts, but maybe he figured it was safer to hide this one in a crowd.   Or he didn’t have enough time left to do the research a full novel would call for.

But when he summoned up his narrator for these books–who I always think of as the wise and world-weary tutelary deity of Isola, looking down on his people with mingled admiration and despair,  seeing them all, knowing them all, willing them to combine their unique strengths, and live as one many-faceted collective organism–knowing that they will fall short of the ideal, calling upon his champions to try and fill the gap, heal the wounds–well, let him tell it.

Just when Carella and Meyer were each and separately waking up from eight hours of sleep, more or less, the city’s swarm of taxis rolled onto the streets for the four-to-midnight shift.  And as the detectives sat down to late afternoon meals which for each of them were really more hearty breakfasts, many of the city’s more privileged women were coming out into the streets to start looking for taxis to whisk them homeward.  Here was a carefully coiffed woman who’d just enjoyed afternoon tea, chatting with another equally stylish woman as they strolled together out of a midtown hotel.  And here was a woman who came out of a department store carrying a shopping bag in each hand, shifting one of the bags to the other hand, freeing it so she could hail a taxi.  And here was a woman coming out of a Korean nail ship, wearing paper sandals to protect her freshly painted toenails.  And another coming out of a deli, clutching  a bag with baguettes showing, raising one hand to signal a cab. At a little before five, the streets were suddenly alive with the leisured women of this city, the most beautiful women in all the world, all of them ready to kill if another woman grabbed a taxi that had just been hailed.

This was a busy time for the city’s cabbies.  Not ten minutes later, the office buildings would begin spilling out men and women who’d been working since nine this morning, coming out onto the pavements now and sucking in great breaths of welcome spring air. The rain had stopped, and the sidewalks and pavements glistened, and there was the strange aroma of freshness on the air. This had been one hell of a winter.

The hands went up, typists’ hands, and file clerks’ hands, and the hands of lawyers and editors and thieves, yes, even thieves took taxis–though obvious criminal types were avoided by these cabbies steering their vehicles recklessly toward the curb in a relentless pursuit of passengers.  These men had paid eight-two dollars to lease their taxis.  These men had paid fifteen bucks to gas their buggies and get them on the road. They were already a hundred bucks in the hole before they put foot on pedal.  Time was money. And there were hungry mouths to feed.  For the most part, these men were Muslims, these men were gentle strangers in a strange land.

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

(I can imagine Westlake thinking, “If Arthur Hailey had known what a writer is, this is how he’d have written.”  It’s sub-par McBain, the clichés are too thick on the ground–hmm, speak of the devil–but it still grips you.)

So somebody is killing Muslim cabbies, and spray-painting a Star of David on the windshield as a calling card.  Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer (who is Jewish) are assigned to the case, which means they have to talk to people who worked with the victims, lived with them, ate with them, prayed with them.  Bit by bit, the diversity of the Islamic community in Isola is laid bare, people from many parts of the world, united only by faith, and sometimes not even that.  Well, most believe a Jew did it, once they hear about the magen David.  That’s a kind of unity that hate can bring.

Even the first victim’s wife believes it, though at first she can’t understand why a Jew would kill her husband, since they came from Bangladesh.  But when she hears about the graffiti, she says “The rotten bastards.”  Clearly, whoever the murderer is, whatever the motive for the shootings, he or she intends to drum up discord between the tribes of Isola.  More than merely the usual hate.

Before long, a handful of Islamic extremists have set off bombs in public places, ostensibly in protest of the murders not being solved (dangling subplot, never gets resolved, McBain hadn’t written a novella in quite a long time). No attacks on synagogues or Jewish neighborhoods–just freeform hate.

Carella and Meyer keep looking for a motive, a suspect, doing all the rote things real detectives do, no great flashes of insight from 87th Precinct detectives, though Meyer has one great idea–figure out if the person who is spray-painting the symbol on the cabs is right or left-handed.  The killer isn’t a southpaw, so it doesn’t help much (I knew it must be those right-handed infidels!  And they call me sinister!)

One of their suspects, pointed out to them by a rabbi, is Anthony Inverni, an outspoken young Italian American, who wants to marry a young Jewish girl.  Her family is trying to stop them.  The rabbi thinks maybe he’s getting revenge by trying to pin the killings on Jews.  An aspiring author, very angry at the world, very anti-religious (one of two such characters in the book), Inverni says he’s going to change his last name to Winters, it’ll look better on a book cover (Hunter would also work, or McBain).

Inverni/Winters also admits he was sleeping around on the girl he means to marry, since he needs an alibi, treats it as no big deal.  Under any name, it is now a well-known fact that the compiler of this anthology was not a faithful husband for much of his life.  Hate can also be directed towards one’s younger self, particularly in old age.

What McBain does here is take what would have been just one plot skein in an 87th Precinct novel, and make it the whole story.  Too cramped for such an expansive topic–he tries to be fair, spends a lot of time in the heads of many different Muslims, showing us their varied lives and interests.

Putting myself in the place of a Muslim reader, I would see the good intentions, the genuine perceptions, and still find it wanting.  Too forced, too hasty, and the shock of 9/11 is still there, the wounds still fresh and raw.  I don’t buy that terrorist bombers are motivated by a few cab drivers getting whacked.  It is mentioned that Muslims died in the towers on 9/11–it is not spelled out whether that happened in Isola, since that would be openly admitting Isola is New York, which McBain was always loathe to do.  The problem with fictional cities being used to talk about specific real-life events.

He’s looking for some way to believe that these newest arrivals can also become fully part of his city, join the larger family, without abandoning their core identities.  It’s a noble project, that needed more time, more research–and perhaps a fresher eye.

He also doesn’t have much space to talk about his detectives–there’s lots of friendly banter between the two comrades, “a Catholic who hadn’t been to church since he was twelve, and a Jew who put up a tree each and every Christmas”–there’s also a brief cameo by the irascible anti-ideal, Andy Parker–but their personalities don’t really come through strongly here.  Nobody who hadn’t read the earlier stories would get a strong sense of who these detectives are.

Comes up short compared to some of his earlier books centered around Puerto Rican immigrants and their kids–who once upon a time were likewise believed to be incapable of assimilation, slotted as gangsters (they did some terrorism too).  It’s a long list of ethnic groups who have been declared social undesirables in America, and we’re all on it.  But you see how quickly he put this one together, wanting to make some personal contribution of his own to this project he’d embarked upon, wanting to make some final statement.  Not enough space, not enough research, not enough perspective.

Maybe he felt the ultimate deadline looming as he typed it.  But with so little time left, and nothing left to prove, what would make him care enough to attempt something so daunting, difficult, and controversial, that would profit him nothing?  Merely love.

And that was merely adequate, as a review, but at least I’ve read some McBain.  A strange thing to begin one’s acquaintance with an important mystery writer with something he wrote in a format he’d probably never attempted before (since the market for novellas had died out before he even got started).

This is an origin story, along the lines of A Study in Scarlet, with a first person narrator who is both protagonist in his own right and observer of a unique investigative mind.  Written as the starting point of a series of stories about two intrepid mismatched detectives–that ends up a bit like those unaired TV pilots you can sometimes see on cable, or get on home video–a series that never happened, stillborn.  All kinds of unrealized potentials that were never explored.  We can talk about why that is, while we’re–

Walking The Line:

There was a bookshelf in the bathroom.  The books were composed of two dominant genres: politics and science fiction.  I took out a book entitled Soul of the Robot by the author Barrington J. Bayley.  It was written in the quick style of pulp fiction, which I liked because there was no pretension to philosophy.  It was just a good story with incredible ideas.

Walter Mosley writes mainly detective novels, series fiction.  He started out with science fiction, broke big with mysteries, and wrote a fair bit of erotica on the side–hmm, who does that remind me of?  His various franchises are always based around a strong central character with well-established quirks and a memorable name–Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, Socrates Fortlow.  I’ve read none of their books.  No, I had to start with Archibald Lawless.  And his artsy antsy amanuensis, Felix Orlean (of the New Orleans Orleans.)

It’s not clear when he wrote this–there’s a slighting reference by Mr. Lawless to President Bush–probably Bush the Younger, going by context–but you can’t be 100% sure–maybe this dates back to before Mosley was a name, still into science fiction, dreaming of the pulp magazines that folded before he had a chance to write for them.

The narrator, doing Dr. Watson as a cultured young black man, encounters Lawless because he reads all the personal ads in multiple print newspapers.  Nobody seems to be using even flip phones, let alone the smart kind.  Computers and the internet are a thing, but not really used much.  There is a certain retro feel to this one, so Mosley could just be filtering some changes out (hmm, who does that also remind me of?).  I find it very hard to believe this was originally conceived in the 21st century, though going by the sarcastic reference to Bush being a legitimately elected President, it was written after the 2000 election (that ref could have been shoehorned in later).

McBain says in his intro that some writers who responded to his entreaties in the positive had ideas too slight for a novel, too involved for a short story–others had a character in mind they wanted to introduce, run him/her up the flagpole, see who saluted.  But I’d think a few had something written or half-written already, and just didn’t have a market for it before McBain sent out the call.  (In Westlake’s A Likely Story, the anthologist protagonist suspects many of the famous authors responding to his call for Christmas-themed pieces are simply dusting off some unpublished work and reworking it.)  Well, the provenance isn’t really the point.

The point is anarchism.  Felix needs a job to support himself while he studies at the Columbia Journalism School–for his temerity at rejecting the practice of law his father and grandfather and great-grandfather sacrificed much to attain success in, he’s been cut off from his wealthy New Orleans clan–he personally prefers the less well-heeled more ‘authentically’ black members of his large socially diverse family (he describes himself as being very light-skinned–as is Mosley himself).  His father whipped him with a belt as a boy, and he’s scared spitless of the man, was quietly delighted when dad told him to get out and never come back.  (But he still thinks about calling him when the cops haul him into a frightening holding pen on a bum rap, where he’s about ten seconds away from getting raped when Lawless pulls a few strings to spring him.)

The man he meets at a midtown office building is the polar antithesis of his father–an alternative authority figure, a modern-day crusader, whose enemy is authority itself.

The man standing there before me had no double in the present day world or in history. He stood a solid six three or four with skin that was deep amber. His hair, which was mostly dark brown and gray, had some reddish highlights twined into a forest of thick dreadlocks that went straight out nine inches from his head, sagging only slightly.  The hair resembled a royal head-dress, maybe even a crown of thorns but Mr. A. Lawless was no victim.  His chest and shoulders were unusually broad even for a man his size.  His eyes were small and deep set.  The forehead was round and his high cheekbones cut strong slanting lines down to his chin which gave his face a definite heart shape.  There was no facial hair and no wrinkles except at the corner of his eyes.

He takes an immediate liking to Felix, who quickly realizes this guy is at least a little bit crazy (more than just a little, as things work out)–but compelling. Convincing.  He’s not part of any organization, but he monitors the outpourings of fellow anarchists across the globe, recognizing that much of what they’re saying is demented gibberish (and that they can be as dangerous as the people they’re fighting), but sometimes they stumble across something real.  He says there are government and corporate assassins everywhere (calls them ‘killkills’). He sees a world most people choose not to see.  His office is full of file boxes containing endless conspiracies of the powerful against We The People.

Yeah, he’s Fox Mulder without the FBI, aliens, mutants, or the ability to hail a cab.  And Felix is Dana Scully without the sexual tension to distract you. Definitely conceived after 1993.  And just like that overblown accident of a cult show that ran far too long (and still ludicrously clings to half-life, like a TV zombie), the believer is always right, and the skeptic is always wrong.  And yet remains a skeptic.  I’ve always had issues with that dynamic. It’s very hard to get the balance right.

Mosley mainly doesn’t here, but Felix is a much better-realized sidekick than Scully–helps that he’s the first-person narrator, of course.  He even gets himself a waitress/music student girlfriend who shares his congenially complicated relationship with her ethnicity.  They enjoy a classic New York date at a classical music concert at The Cloisters, then a sweet raunchy sex scene, and I applaud Mr. Mosley for rejecting the old Chandleresque “Gumshoe meets nice interesting girl he could be happy with, but goes for the deadly noir-blonde siren instead” trope (Though that trope is here in force, her name is Lana Drexel, and she ends up working for Lawless too.)

Who knows if the girlfriend would remained part of the series, if there’d been one? Who knows if Felix would ever have been proven right about anything? The story itself is almost more of a mystery than the mystery its protagonists try to unravel.

So Felix can smell trouble all over this awesome anarchist; he himself is small of stature and timorous of nature, but he really needs the job, he’s got the investigative instinct of a hound dog, and he finds Lawless fascinating, as anyone would, as I do.  As indeed nearly everyone we meet in the story does.  Lawless can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized–he’s not famous, but everybody knows him, from the humble to the great.  (The only one who doesn’t seem to know who he is happens to be the one ‘killkill’ we meet in this story, which I found a bit random, but it’s a cool fight scene.)

And the minute Felix questions anything (like what are the odds an anarchist would be born with the name Lawless?), this peripatetic Nero Wolfe gets up on the invisible soapbox he carries everywhere with him for precisely such occasions.  His one weakness, but it’s a bad one.

“I am Archibald Lawless,” he said.  “I’m sitting here before you.  You are looking into my eyes and questioning what you see and what you hear.  On the streets you meet Asian men named Brian, Africans named Joe Cramm. But you don’t question their obviously being named for foreign devils.  You accept their humiliation.  You accept their loss of history.  You accept them being severed from long lines of heritage by their names.  Why wouldn’t you accept just as simply my liberating appellation?”

Why can’t Felix, who is no dummy, riposte with “Lawless is a foreign devil’s name, and we’re all foreign devils here except the Indians”?  Trouble is, the author identifies more with Felix, but would much rather be Lawless.   Which could lead to interesting tensions in the narrative, ways for Mosley to explore his own inner contradictions (that you kind of figure a man with a black father and a Russian Jewish mother is going to have, and who doesn’t?) but there’s not enough room to work with them.  Though there was plenty of room for Lawless to just smile at Felix’s little jibe, and say “A man from New Orleans whose last name is Orlean thinks my name is contrived?”  And he doesn’t, because that’s not the character.  Lawless talks too much and says too little (and I am, after all, something of an authority on that).

This is the longest of the three novellas on offer here–so long, I’d call it more of a short novel.  The narrative style reminds me more than a little of the Mitch Tobin mysteries, though the themes and character dynamics don’t.  Mosley sticks in a lot of bells and whistles, about stolen jewels, and mysterious murders, and a haven for fugitives in a restaurant on the western banks of the Hudson, and you can tell he’s really jonesing for the halcyon days of pulp fiction, when it was so much easier to get away with crap like this.  When it felt a lot more real than it does now.  A lot of McGuffins here, none of them terribly convincing, but they never are–the trick is to make the story so engaging, we don’t care.  Mosley doesn’t quite pull it off, but he does make me wish he’d tried again, because I do care about these people, I am interested in what they think.

The real story is Felix stepping into a larger world, accepting his alternative father figure (I think we can all see the looming confrontation between Lawless and Orlean Sr., and that would have been something to see.)  So when that’s done, maybe all that’s left is formula, and Mosley didn’t see a way forward.  He’s clearly more than good enough a writer to know when he hasn’t done his best work.  But there’s a lot of good work here, all the same.  And a lot more than your standard identity politics.  Lawless sends Felix to talk to a snooty real estate agent he suspects of being involved in something more than just gentrification.  Felix bluffs his way in by using his father’s name.

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

“This is an exclusive service, Mr. Orlean,” she said with no chink of humanity in her face.  “And we like to know exactly who it is we’re dealing with.”

“Oh,” I said.  “So it wasn’t because of my clothes or my race?”

“The lower orders come in all colors, Mr. Orlean.  And none of them get back here.”

Her certainty sent a shiver down my spine.  I smiled to hide the discomfort.

I suppose Mosley could still bring Felix and Archie back someday.  But I doubt it. And these days, I’m more afraid of the wild-eyed conspiracy mongers than I am of ‘The Deep State.’  Though there’s plenty of fear to go around, isn’t there?  And no clear lines of scrimmage anymore, if there ever were.

So I’m over 4,000 words into a Westlake review, and I’ve yet to talk about what Westlake wrote.  (Be warned, there will be a lot more spoilers for this one). McBain contributed a less than fully satisfactory installment to his most famous series–perhaps the concluding installment.  Mosley turned in a much more interesting but confused introduction to a series that never happened.  Both struggled with the constraints of the novella form, which McBain had abandoned maybe 40 or more years earlier, and Mosley probably had little or no experience with.

Westlake always had problems with the short story, but the novella was a form he felt much more confident in.  He’d published a two-novella collection back in ’77, proof of his wishing there was still a market for them.  Anarchaos (a science fiction novel I’m not sure would have been in Lawless’ collection, though it fits Felix’s description to a T) is little more than a novella, and he probably didn’t even get 500 dollars for it.

In his early days, Richard Stark was writing basically nothing but novels about the same length as Walking the Line, but a whole lot more focused and sure of themselves, with a protagonist who disdains both soapboxes and sidekicks.  And I am much inclined to think Stark’s the one who really wrote–

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

“A quiet heist,” Querk told him.  “No hostages, no explosions, no standoffs.  In, out, nobody ever knows it happened.  Believe me, the only way this scores for us is if nobody ever knows anything went missing.”

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

I gave the game away up top, so might as well just say it.  This is a clear rewrite of The Man With the Getaway Face.  I say clear, even though I didn’t twig to it on my previous reading–Westlake always hid his recycling well.  It doesn’t play out the same way, because Dortmunder is not Parker, he lives in a much less brutal reality than Parker,  and he’s never getting plastic surgery (though he probably could use it more), but the stories share a skeleton, and his name is Querk–though it used to be Skimm.

Querk:  A skinny little guy, maybe fifty, with a long face, heavy black eyebrows over banana nose over thin-lipped mouth over long bony chin, he fidgeted constantly on that wire-mesh chair in Paley Park, a vest pocket park on East 3rd Street in Manhattan, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

Skimm: He was a thin stub end of a man, all bones and skin with no meat.  His head was long and thin, set on a chicken neck with a knotty Adam’s apple, and his face was all nose and cheekbones. The watery eyes were set deep in the skull, the jaw small and hard.

In both cases, there’s a woman at the back of it.  A mean frustrated New Jersey waitress named Alma who is just using Skimm in the Stark novel.  A good-natured hearty trout-fishing upstate New York travel agent named Janet, for Querk, with a pernicious habit of trying to improve the men in her life.   Both a bit on the hefty side, but attractively so.  Big difference is that Janet actually wants to be with Querk–Stark can relax and be a bit more mellow and forgiving here, but it’s still Stark–hell, he was actually wordier in his physical description of Skimm.

Janet likes the man she’s using (Querk will make a good project for her), but they are still both looking for an escape route–her from a really bad marriage with an abusive paranoid who works for the phone company.  Him from having to work at his brother’s printing company, having been trained for the old school non-digital printing industry that no longer exists during his last stint in prison, and only his brother would hire him on.

The plant sometimes prints money–lots and lots of money.  But security is lax there, because it’s not our money.  It’s Guerraran money, siapas–yep, Guerrera is back for one last encore.  (And please recall, Guerrara also exists in the Starkian universe, albeit under the more masculine alias Guerrero.)

The pitch is simple–Querk works at the plant.  He can get them in during a period when it’s shut down a few weeks so that the river that serves as its power source can be opened up for the annual trout run.  They’ll get the power to run the presses from a mobile generator kept at the local firehouse they can borrow with none the wiser.  They print themselves a hundred billion siapas, in twenty million siapa notes.  This will come to about 500g’s in our money.  (No, I don’t know why they don’t just make the siapa worth more, I’m not an economist, ask Paul Krugman or somebody.)

Instead of being the finger on this job, like Alma was in the earlier book, Janet’s involvement is explained by her having a contact in Guerrera who can fence the money for them, demanding a hefty cut of course.  Kelp goes to check out this story, finds it lacking in credibility.  Like Parker and Handy before them, Dortmunder and Kelp smell a cross in the making.  This alone should tell you who’s writing this, since that’s a common twist in the Parker novels that only showed up once in the Dortmunders before now.

Where Stark and Westlake come together is in their endless interest in their surroundings–you gotta know the territory.  But the territory has changed a lot since the early 60’s.  Querk explains the job to them while they are parked along the West Side Highway–remember how much I loved the familiar settings of the second Parker novel, so near where I grew up?  This is equally familiar, but much more contemporary. And a lot less noir-ish, but that goes with the territory as well.

Querk said, “What is this?”

“Fairway,” Kelp told him, as he found a parking space on the left and drove into it, front bumper against fence.  It was hot outside, so he kept the engine on and the windows shut.

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

“What it is,” Kelp told him, putting the Infiniti in park, “Harlem never had a big supermarket, save money on your groceries, they only had these little corner stores, not much selection on the shelves.  So this Fairway comes in, that used to be a warehouse over there, see it?”

Querk nodded at the big warehouse with the supermarket entrance. “I see it.”

Kelp said, “So they put in a huge supermarket, great selections, everything cheap, the locals love it.  But also the commuters, it’s easy on, easy off, see, there’s your north-bound ramp back up to the highway, so they can come here, drop in, buy everything for the weekend, then head off to their country retreat.”

Querk said, “But why us?  What are we doin’ here?”

Dortmunder told him, “You look around, you’ll see one, two people, even three, sitting in the cars around here.  The wife–usually, it’s the wife–goes in and shops, the husband and the houseguests, they stay out here, keep outa the way, sit in the car, tell each other stories.”

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

Dortmunder and Kelp don’t make one wrong move this whole mini-book.  They scout every problem out before it happens.  There are no surprises.  The idea wasn’t that Querk and Janet would kill them, but just scoot off to Guerrera with all the cash, never to be seen again.  They get surprised–by Janet’s crazy husband, and by their criminal co-conspirators being so much smarter than they look. (As Kelp says at the end, “That’s what we specialize in.”)

But other than uncomfortable rental cars (they decide it’s too long-term a job for Kelp to borrow some doctor’s luxuriant Lexus or whatever), bad upstate food, and a brief moment of buying into Querk’s original story, there are no embarrassments for Dortmunder here.  He’s finally what he’s always wanted to be–a Stark heister.  But without one vital little element.

See, the job goes off fine, without a hitch, they have the money, they’ve neutralized the crazy wife-beating husband (Janet’s black eye was a vital clue for Inspector Kelp), they’ve got Querk and Janet at their mercy–and they show mercy.  Kind of.  See, in the words of Lord Vader, they have altered the deal. Maybe Querk and Janet would have been better off with Parker.  It’d be over faster.

The original deal was that Dortmunder and Kelp get a bit over 62 grand to split between them.  In dollars.  New deal is Querk and Janet can run away together to beautiful scenic Guerrera, as planned.  They can take one box of freshly minted walking around money,  a hundred thousand bucks’ worth of siapas to start their new life together, mazel tov.   But here comes the catch.

Querk said, “Where am I gonna get that money?”

“You’re gonna steal it,” Dortmunder told him.  “That’s what you do, remember?  You gave up on reform.”

Querk hung his head.  The thought of a Guerreran jail moved irresistably through his mind.

Meanwhile, Dortmunder said, “If you don’t show up in six months, the four boxes will go to the cops with an anonymous letter with your names and a description of the scheme and where you’re hiding out, and the probable numbers on your siapas.  And then, you’ve got nothing.”

“Jeez,” Querk said.

“Look at it this way,” Dortmunder suggested.  “You lied to us, you abused our trust, but we aren’t getting even, we aren’t hurting you.  Because all we want is what’s ours.  So, one way or another, you keep your side of the bargain, and we keep ours.  Looking past Querk at the window, he said, “Here’s the goddam compact, I hope we can fit these boxes in there.  Come on, Querk, help me carry the loot.”

I can imagine many faithful readers of this series coming to this point in the story and exclaiming out loud, “Why is Dortmunder being so mean?”  He was pretty damn mean in The Hot Rock–many since have learned you don’t want to tick him off–usually some wealthy powerful person who did a lot worse than just stiff him.  Querk and Janet are basically nice people (as opposed to good people) who only wanted to escape their unsatisfactory lives, and needed to stiff somebody in order to start over from scratch.

But they stiffed the wrong guy.  And they didn’t realize who was writing this story.  A much harsher god than Donald Westlake.  Who is enjoying the chance to administer justice without the use of firearms or huge veiny hands.  A change is as good as a rest, as they say.

Far and away the best novella of the three on offer here–I couldn’t say about the remaining seven in the original hardcover.  Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King are no slouches, Lawrence Block recently put out maybe the best novella I’ve ever read via Kindle, which is proving to be the savior of that long-neglected form.  But could anybody beat a tag-team composed of Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark?  Talk about a handicap match.

His entry, in a form none of them employed regularly, is the best because he’s not trying for something bigger, bolder, brassier, he’s not trying to save the world in 40,000 words or less, he’s not jumping on any soapboxes.  He’s just using this opportunity to try a little experiment–what would Dortmunder be like if Stark wrote him?  And he’s not going to tell anybody that’s what he’s doing.  Because that would skew the data.

Which I suppose is what I’ve just done, but it’s been over ten years now, and I think the statute of limitations has expired, along with the author, sadly.  Only Mosley is left now.  They should have set up a tontine or something.  For all I know they did.  That would make for an interesting novella, don’t you think?

I think it’s going to be a while before my next review, since I haven’t had time to reread the next Dortmunder novel, and it’s a long one, with all the extra plot elements Stark summarily dispensed with here.  Maybe I’ll find something to write about in the nonce, maybe not.  Forgive my transgressions, gentle readers, as I would forgive yours, had you any.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Richard Stark